Centuries-old irrigation system shows how to manage scarce water

New Mexico’s community-operated acequias, some over 300 years old, demonstrate how farmers can fairly share this unpredictable resource.

This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

Mayordomo Virgil Trujillo marches briskly along the ditch’s banks above us as I and the other workers wait for our assignments. “One,” he shouts as he lays a lightweight stick perhaps 10 feet long on the dry earth, marking the length of the acequia that the first worker must clear. I am worker 13. Virgil wants us to square the channel and to remove any debris that has collected over the winter. Toward the bottom, where the flow of the water through the ditch is slow, our task is to chop out tufts of grass that have taken root and to go after invasive plants like Chinese Elm and Russian Olive.

It’s spring again, the time of year—for the 300th time in some instances—when New Mexico communities come together to clean the acequias, irrigation channels that carry snowmelt from the mountains to newly tilled farm fields. Each annual cleaning is one more demonstration that at least here, in these close-knit communities arrayed across arid and rugged rangeland, it’s possible for people to share scarce resources to achieve a common goal—in this case, making sure everyone in the group has enough water.

Acequias are mutually managed, irrigation channels that have been in continuous operation in the arid American Southwest since before the formation of the United States. This communal water system traces its roots to the Spanish conquistadors, who brought their traditions to the territory in the 1600s, and who themselves borrowed it from the Muslims who invaded Spain in the 8th century. Indeed, the word acequia (pronounced ‘ah-seh-key-uh,’ stress on the ‘seh’) is an adaptation of the Arabic as-saqiya, meaning water carrier.

There are close to 700 functioning acequias in New Mexico, according to the state’s Acequia Commission, and a score more in Colorado. Many of these gravity-fed ditches that bring runoff from the mountains to the fields have been operating for three centuries, and some were likely dug long before that.

Most acequias are open channels and many farmers irrigate by flooding their fields, which means that lots of water leaches away or evaporates. Yet studies show that the dirt waterways provide more robust environmental benefits than concrete culverts and metal pipes, says Sam Fernald, professor of watershed management at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and the head of the school’s Water Resources Research Institute.

Seepage—which can range between one-third and one-half of the flow—replenishes groundwater while also fostering a rich wetlands around each ditch, Fernald says. A number of other studies suggest that irrigating with acequias extends the hay-growing season and so boosts the number of cattle that can be grazed. And the largest benefit, though much harder to quantify, is that the acequias create communities that serve as stewards of the environment.

Parciantes—members who own water rights in an acequia communityexpress this in a slightly different fashion. “Belonging to the land is what’s important,” says Joseph Padilla, a retired teacher who irrigates his family’s land with water diverted from the Gallinas River into the Acequia Madre de los Vigiles just outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Fat snowflakes float around us, falling onto his field of newly sown winter wheat. “We don’t control it. The land owns us. We’re just a small part of it.”

The acequias also protect traditional farming techniques. “I still have the same chile seed my ancestors grew and I still grow the same chile variety,” says Don Bustos, master-farmer and long-time mayordomo of the Acequia de Santa Cruz in the hills above Española.

As Bustos and I stroll the fields that once belonged to his great-grandmother, he says: “This acequia does more than distribute water. It holds the community together as a spirit enterprise.”

A ditch democracy

Acequias are customary democracies. By tradition, each ditch is governed by a three-person commission elected by the parciantes.

“The acequias are really the first form of government,” explains Martha Montoya-Trujillo, a commissioner of the 2.6-mile-long Acequia del Rincon in Pojoaque, which has 160 acres under cultivation divided among 60 farms. “They existed before the villages.”

The parciantes and commissioners also elect a ditch manager, the mayordomo. Each mayordomo manages the infrastructure of irrigation. Acequias capture their water by thrusting barriers out into local rivers, forcing water to pool at the side and run into the channels dug centuries ago. Years back, these diversions were hand-made reefs, mostly rock, sometimes augmented with junked cars. In recent years, funded by grants from the state and federal governments, most acequias have junked their haphazard blockages and built concrete diversion dams with metal valves that can open and close to control the flow.

Downstream from the diversion dam are the headgates, the main control valves for each ditch. At various points, every acequia also boasts a number of channels through which water can be diverted back to the river to ensure silt and rocks don’t block the channels. The channels can also safely evacuate excess volume if there’s a flash flood. Each parciante also has a small gate—typically a flat piece of metal at the side of the ditch that can be pulled up or pushed down to release or block the flow of water.

The mayordomo also presides over the annual cleaning of the acequias and, more controversially, tells people when they can irrigate and when they have to shut their gates. Being a mayordomo, then, guarantees that every parciante will be angry with you at some point during the season. This year, the late April snowpack in the hills suggests that water will be plentiful. The past five years, by contrast, were dry, and therefore contentious. Alex Trujillo, Montoya-Trujillo’s husband and long-time mayordomo of the Acequia del Rincon, says the key to the job is to not get angry when neighbors get angry at him. “Yeah, I get my ass chewed out every so often,” he says, “but we’re all still good friends.”

Indeed, most mayordomos I spoke with suggested that, while things may seem easier when there’s ample water, it’s the dry years that prove the system works. Parciantes may get angry, but they always recognize that a sustained drought means less for each individual and more intensive sharing.

The future of acequias

The New Mexico Acequia Association, which advocates for all the ditches in the state, has won several important legislative battles to protect traditional irrigation.

“Acequias are a voice from the past, but they’re also a voice for the future,” says Paula Garcia, the group’s executive director, as well as a farmer who depends on an acequia to irrigate her land in the town of Mora. “The day-to-day-water ethic and the day-to-day moral economy is really important for how we manage water for the future. It’s a model of how to govern the commons.”

Garlic farmer and novelist Stanley Crawford, who has irrigated from the Acequia del Bosque and the Acequia del Llano in Dixon since 1971, carefully considers the question of whether the tradition of mutual stewardship can continue on a hotter, drier planet. “The future does not look good for any of us anywhere,” he says, and notes that geographer Jared Diamond has determined that four years of stress can be enough to cause a complex society to fall apart.

Nonetheless, Crawford points out, a generation ago, when he wrote Mayordomo—a close-up chronicle of a year on the ditch—old-timers already groused that young people were too lazy to run the acequias. Still, the ditches endured, and Crawford thinks they will carry on into the future. “Acequias have survived disruptions of language and culture how many times over hundreds of years?” he asks. “Three times at least. I think they’ve got a built-in mechanism for survival.”

Crawford points out that each acequia is a tiny outpost of solidarity. “There’s a democratic structure. People control a basic resource, something that is very unusual in the U.S. And there’s a very strong aesthetic component. There’s something really magical about that.”

Even with the climate changing and less water a looming reality, the acequias are still attracting young people. Lupita Salazar is a perfect example.
She left New Mexico to get a degree in theater from the University of Southern California, then returned to her family’s farm. Now, intent on passing on her passion for the land and for traditional artistic and cultural practices, she has joined with fellow farmer Marcela Casaus to manage the Northern Youth Project. Both are conscious that it’s a relatively new thing for women to be leaders in farming. But they are undaunted.

“We’re introducing kids to their roots,” Salazar says as she shovels the slim indentation in the soil that brings water from the Acequia del Pueblo to the Project’s allotment behind the Abiquiu Post Office. “If we have any curriculum, it’s the seasonal elements of the land and the plants.”

Casaus rakes the trench as her kids hover on a nearby bench. She points at some local shrubs. “We don’t need to be eating salmon in the middle of the desert when we have verdolaga (purslane) and quelites (amaranth) growing wild.”

Salazar continues: “Irrigating is a meditative activity. It’s just you and the water in the desert.”

She says the project’s goal mimics the goal of the acequias—to produce FLOW: Future Leaders of the World.

“Changing the world one garden at a time,” she says. “It’s pretty epic.”

We have dug out the acequia and cleared the bed and banks of two laterals—tiny waterways that run to smaller holdings. The treasurer of the Acequia del Pueblo distributes paychecks: $80 for eight hours of work—for the handful of independent workers. Parciantes pay the others. I hand Virgil his shovel and he runs his hand over the blade to see how badly I have damaged it. Later I hear him say that he carries a file and a portable grinder in his truck for just this kind of occasion.

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