Juan Estévan Arellano
The acequias of the 21st century are going to be very different from those of the past. As new technologies are introduced, a lot of the traditional knowledge that goes back centuries will slowly erode until it is known only to scholars of ancient systems.
This past summer, probably due to the drought (which will only be exacerbated by climate change), a lot of problems that nobody thought about suddenly showed up as a prelude to what is ahead in the near future. In the Embudo Valley, the repartimiento, the traditional way of sharing water in times of shortage, simply didn’t work. But that was only one factor. In the past few years, the introduction of new technologies has thrown a monkey wrench into how water was used in the past.
Another coming clash is the competition for water between commercial growers and what orchardist Fred Martinez calls “hobby farmers.” I saw this inching up since the drought of 2001, when there was a major disagreement between the bigger farmers versus those who plant only for family use.
Then there’s the lack of involvement or apathy on the part of most parciantes (water-rights owners) that is rampant in all acequias, as well as absentee landowners. In one particular acequia, over 50 percent of the landowners are absentee owners. This has created problems when it’s time to elect commissioners and mayordomos. Several acequias last year couldn’t find mayordomos. When this happens it puts a lot of pressure on the elected commissioners.
Then, added to the mix of problems is the clash between newcomers and traditional acequia users who are mostly Indo-hispanos. This started to happen in the late ‘60s with the coming of the hippies. As a result, the acequia meetings, instead of being run in Spanish as before—out of respect, the elders told me—started to be conducted in English. The old bylaws, which were simple and written in Spanish, all of a sudden had to be translated into Spanish. Most of the old terminology, such as surcos, melgas, linderos, eras, regaderas, cabeceras, has disappeared, as have the old concepts of the landscape: altitos, jollas, vegas, ciénegas, esteros, ancones.
The workers, or peones, have also changed. Before, the acequias were worker-owned cooperatives where the parciantes were also the workers. Families were big, so there was always a younger sibling coming along to work in the acequia. Today most of the owners, whether newcomers or from the established old families, are getting older and older. In our acequia, many of the parciantes are in their 80s, 70s or 60s, with very few between 40 and 50. And those that are still working no longer live here; it has become a “bedroom community.”
Today’s acequia workers all are salaried employees, and as far as they’re concerned, the more days they work, the better for them. And to top it off, many of them are not very good workers. They have no idea of how to handle a shovel, or worse, how to clean the acequia. It used to be called “la saca de la acequia” (digging). Then, in the past 20 years they were mostly “limpiando la acequia” (cleaning), and lately many have told me all they do is “barrer la acequia” (sweep the canal).
We now also have people without water rights who have been allowed to irrigate because they volunteer to be ditch-riders. Since they don’t own water rights they can’t serve as mayordomos. Also, many people, due to new technology, are pumping water above the acequia, something that wasn’t allowed in the past. The ones to blame are the commissioners and mayordomos who don’t know their duties.
As there are now more and easier ways to communicate, now there is less face-to-face communicating, as parciantes use the phone, Internet, texting and other types of social media. In the past, the mayordomo would take the water directly to whoever was going to irrigate, and once his time was up, he would come and remind the irrigator that the time was up and then deliver it to the next parciante.
Today the NMAA serves as an advocate for acequias in getting legislation passed in Santa Fe. The Acequia Association’s Governance Project is helping hundreds of acequias update their bylaws, and it offers many other services. Groups such as the Arid Land Institute of Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif., the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University are also offering their expertise. The state of New Mexico, through the Environment Department, is helping develop watershed plans and is monitoring the Embudo River for turbidity, which helps the acequias deliver clean water to farmers. And farmers’ markets help make it possible for farmers to sell their produce locally.
Scholars from all over the world are starting to notice New Mexico’s acequias. They have come from Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Chile and Morocco to study the old irrigation systems and compare them with their own. Events such as Celebrando las Acequias have brought a lot of scholars from different disciplines together to discuss the role of acequias as part of the landscape.
Finally, the acequias and those who work the land are getting noticed and recognized for what they are doing to provide local, organic produce at affordable prices to those who don’t plant. Farming is being looked at with more respect by the youth, as many of them want to get back to the land. The only obstacle is the price of farmland, which is way too high.
But if the ancient acequias continue to show that their parciantes are willing to embrace some aspects of new technologies without abandoning their traditional knowledge, they will survive.
Juan Estévan Arellano and his wife Elena raise heirloom fruit and vegetables in the Embudo area of northern New Mexico. Arellano, a 2013 NM Community Foundation Luminaria Award recipient, is the translator-editor of the book Ancient Agriculture. firstname.lastname@example.org