In a drought prone region, with few reliable waterways, the Rio Grande is the primary source of water in central New Mexico. The river supports numerous communities, wildlife, and crops from north to south. The pueblos, as well as the Spanish and European settlers that followed, relied on the fertile soil in the river’s floodplain to grow crops. That has been true for thousands of years. For example, the river supported more than 100 pueblos prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.
Though Puebloans had sophisticated water harvesting and irrigation techniques centuries before the Spanish and Mexican settlers moved into the region, the communal irrigation and management structure associated with acequias arrived with the Spanish.
Acequias are a ubiquitous feature of agricultural communities throughout northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. The elaborate web of canals siphon water from every reliable tributary in the state. This cooperative, communal form of irrigation has nourished fields in this region for centuries, allowing New Mexico to produce an impressive amount of produce based on a limited amount of arable land.
On a practical level, an acequia is a deep trench that siphons water from a primary source, distributing it through a network of ditches to crops. Though some of the modern acequias incorporate pipes or aqueducts, most of the older acequia systems in New Mexico are open, dirt ditches. The simplicity makes them cheap to maintain and easy to clear out every spring, though “easy” is a matter of perspective in this case. Spring cleaning the ditches is a grueling (preferably group) activity involving shovels, time, blisters, and a lot of sweat.
Beyond functionality, acequia systems are more than a network of canals for irrigation. Water is recognized as a critical resource that needs to be distributed equitably. The management of acequias is a community based form of water governance.
Acequia Traditions in Northern New Mexico
Acequias include specific control over water distribution, water scarcity plans, and all other matters pertaining to allocation of water. In fact, in northern New Mexico, state law protects the acequia system. Additionally, the water rights attached to land in acequia districts tends to add a lot to property values.
Historically, each district elected a mayordomo to serve as the water master. That individual was responsible for making decisions about water distribution for the community, with the input and consent of the acequia members. These days the State Engineer governs the numerous acequia districts statewide.
Acequia water law traditionally required everyone with irrigation rights to participate in the annual maintenance of the acequia madre, the mother ditch that fed the rest of the network of canals. The annual spring time ditch cleanup was known as the limpieza y saca de acequia. The acequia mayordomo would organize a work crew every spring to clean the silt, brush and debris from the ditches. That tradition has also evolved in the modern world. It is far more common for the acequia district to contract with a local company to clean and maintain the ditches.
There are currently between 600-700 community acequias in New Mexico. They are concentrated in the upper valleys around smaller rivers and watersheds. However, some acequias stem from larger rivers, including the San Juan, Rio Grande, Pecos and Rio Chama. Beyond their value to agriculture, the miles of acequias provide a cottonwood-lined escape for locals. The banks of the ditches are a “go-to” for walking, running, biking, and horseback riding.
Acequias | From North Africa to New Mexico
The oldest acequias were established more than 400 years ago. They provided water to farms and ranches in the earliest Spanish settlements on the upper Rio Grande. In fact, many of the original acequias are still in use. However, acequias were not a Spanish innovation. The Spanish learned how to build them from the Moors.
The Moors started building acequias over 10,000 years ago to grow crops in the Middle East and North Africa. The communal approach to water distribution evolved in response to agriculture prone to drought. Acequias were key to the survival of early agricultural villages.
The Moors brought acequias to Spain when they occupied the Iberian Peninsula in 827 A.D. In turn, the Spanish brought acequias to the New World, including the territory that would eventually become New Mexico and southern Colorado.
Colonial Infrastructure in the New Mexico Territory
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in northern New Mexico, they quickly realized that the region was rich in natural resources, but short on water and arable land. However, the Spanish Crown and early settlers realized that water was a critical resource for development. In fact, water was a codified element of their official settlement policy. They required water resources near settlement sites. During the colonial period settlers often dug acequias prior to building homes or a church.
The King of Spain and, later, Governor of Mexico bestowed land grants to individuals based on prior service or loyalty from the 1600s through the 1800s. Many of New Mexico’s acequia systems were legally defined within those land grants. Even the acequia systems established after New Mexico became a U.S. Territory followed similar principles. Under the acequia system families owned their individual farms and ranches; however, remaining land, like meadows, wetlands, and mountains, were community resources.
Early settlers dug the elaborate irrigation networks without the benefit of modern tools or survey equipment. They used logs, brush, and rocks to create diversion points. The web of canals allowed them to extend the swath of viable farmland for miles. Each wave of settlers constructed or expanded acequia systems until they stretched into the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado and the San Juan Basin and tributaries of the Canadian River further to the east.