Rachel Preston Prinz
They would call the first irrigation ditch in each village the Acequia Madre, or Mother Ditch, as if the Hispanic settlers wanted to acknowledge the acequias as a source of life, of sustenance and even the foundation of community.
The rains and snows that fall on the Rocky Mountains are the source. They flow as streams, pulverizing stone and leaves and wood, adding vitamins and minerals to the water as it carves its way through solid rock. Where the mountain joins the plain, almost a thousand years ago, the Puebloans built their communities. They were moving from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled agricultural one, and they selected this place to build their village, partially because of the access to water afforded by such a stream. They paid attention to nature. Beaver were abundant then, and maybe they learned from them that you could dam up a stream and save some water for later. And, in doing so, they created some of the earliest forms of irrigated agriculture in northern New Mexico.
Further downstream in Hispanic villages—some of which are now nearly 400 years old—they too chose these places because of water, and they built upon the older tradition. They designed acequias using surveying, agriculture and engineering, which they learned from the Moors, who learned it from the Romans, who learned it from the Greeks, Egyptians and Mesopotamians. The acequias we know derived from precedent ideas nearly 7,000 years old that were carried across four continents to get here. Most amazingly, we are but one branch on that enormous family tree.
Here, in the Hispanic villages, the acequias got their own day each year, at which time the men would clean and clear the ditches while the women would prepare a feast for the evening, when they came back together to celebrate another year of having access to the life-giving water.
The Americans that came 200 years ago often settled in the larger Hispanic towns on trade- and railroad routes, drawn there because of their sophisticated infrastructure. The only problem was, the traditional linear agricultural fields were often broken up into a patchwork of lots that people built fences around. And when they looked on the laterals and ditches starting to fall into disuse, it was easy to say, “I don’t have water rights, what’s in it for me?” But we know now that the value of the acequias is greater than that.
Our grandparents reminisce still about the days of abundant snows in winter, raging rivers in spring, fertile fields in summer and great harvests in fall. We all know that there is nowhere near as much snow feeding the cycle of life in New Mexico anymore. Recently, when the mayordomos of Taos went up to the mountain in spring to check the snow gauge to see how much water they would have to allot, there was no snow at the gauge at all, for the first time ever, or at least for as long as anyone alive could remember.
And yet, people keep coming to New Mexico and staying. They drop great straws into our aquifers, taking water at unsustainable rates and, now, from Questa to Mora to Belen, wells are running dry because there is not enough water recharging the aquifers.
But what’s this got to do with acequias? Well, one of the interesting things about acequias is that an unlined ditch can lose up to 80 percent of its water. Some of that is lost to evaporation, which feeds the water cycle. Some is lost to too many trees and overgrowth. But some of the “lost” water passes into the ground and down through layers of rock and gravel and is scrubbed clean as it finds its way into the aquifers.
Working acequias promote local agriculture, access to water and flood control. They allow us to adapt to climatic variations, and they promote healthy ecosystems. If you look at a satellite image of New Mexico, the only green you will see is along the rivers, streams and acequias. Ten feet or so on either side of the acequias, there are insects, birds, mammals, wildflowers, fungi, trees and berries, which provide a sense of place and beauty that we’d otherwise not get. And healers trained in ancient traditions can wildcraft to harvest nuts, fruits, berries, leaves and roots to make medicines that address our health in sustainable ways.
The acequias were truly sustainable before sustainable was cool. Being sustainable was necessary to survive. They worked then, and they can work again. Many of the acequias are completely overgrown and abandoned. To restore them seems nearly impossible; they say there is not enough money and manpower. But we have the power to change it in our hands. Those ditches were built by the hard work of many people. It is said that the first ditch in New Mexico took 1,500 people to build. It will take the entire community to repair them, too. All we have to do is show up for work one weekend a year.
Then, we can share what we know, and we can align with the coalitions working to protect the acequias and approach lawmakers—at local, state and national levels—and ask for laws and policies that ensure that the acequias are included as part of an overall water-management plan.
We can look to the past and honor that rich history and then look to the present and the future. We can take a lesson from the Native Americans and think about access to water for those born seven generations from now, so that our grandchildren’s grandchildren can look to their working Acequia Madre—their Mother Ditch—and they can know that water is the source of life, of sustenance and of community.
And the bonus is, by approaching the acequias as a part of how we perceive sustainable community, we put ourselves on the path to become one.