January 2014

A Bird’s-Eye View of Northern New Mexico’s Acequias


Alejandro López


New Mexico is fortunate to have any number of cultural and physical phenomena such as sovereign Indian communities, historic Mexicano villages and adobe buildings. These unique legacies set our state apart from other regions of the country, lure tourists and make life interesting. They also challenge the state and its people to ponder new levels of their integration into, coexistence with, or possibly even resistance toward mainstream culture’s reigning paradigm of endless growth and “progress.”

The case of New Mexico’s intricate system of acequias, numbering approximately 800, is a classic example of such a cultural artifact that has met with contradictory attitudes by nearly everyone involved in their use, maintenance, administration and even appreciation, since American culture began to interact with the indigenous cultures. At present, it is not known whether this historic, holistic system of water technology and distribution will survive, thrive or all but disappear.

At one time, these gravity-fed irrigation channels intersected most of the bottomlands of northern New Mexico and made these lands into a virtual paradise, yielding copious amounts of fruit, vegetables and grains. Not surprisingly, they also recharged the aquifers of each of the valleys that they meandered through. According to our elders, the water in the acequias in the early part of last century was so pristine that most people, unhesitantly, drank from them. For some communities, such as Las Truchas in Río Arriba County, there were no other sources of drinking water.

On yet another level, the village acequia governance system made for a highly democratic form of interaction between the people, as well as for a democratic parceling-out of this precious resource in the context of a mostly cooperative agrarian society in which everyone tended to watch out for everyone else’s good. As might be expected, the mayordomo (ditch-master) was accorded the respect enjoyed today by judges and other arbitrators.

One can only imagine the time and energy it took for the villagers of several centuries ago to dig out these channels, at times with wooden implements, as their predecessors had done in other parts of the Southwest, Mexico, Spain, Morocco and the Middle East, beginning with the dawn of the agricultural revolution at least 8,000 years ago. Indeed, so arduous was the task of building earthen dams to hold back the water during times of snowmelt and while digging the acequia channels, that out of this enormous labor there arose a nearly fanatical love of homeland (querencia) and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the defense of one’s agricultural community. This is a trait that one still finds among many New Mexicans who are tied to the land and to its hard-won, hand-wrought waterways.

Among the first Americans to enter New Mexico, there were many who compared its landscape to that of Egypt, not only because of its general aridness, but also because of the life-giving presence of the Río Grande, its many tributaries and the myriad oases that thrived as a result of the acequias. Even though the majority of Pueblo Indian and Mexicano New Mexicans valued and made use of the water that flowed through their acequias for subsistence agriculture, the incoming Americans had, by and large, other uses in mind for this same water. They were mainly concerned with its application in the development of stock raising, industry (sawmills and mines), and ultimately for urban growth, which, over time, has increased exponentially and at present threatens to overtake any other use.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th, both the Pueblo Indian and Mexicano people of the state continued to raise crops and feed themselves using their age-old systems of irrigation, although their populations were burgeoning and beginning to outstrip the land’s ability to sustain them. When the people of northern New Mexico were deemed to be poor by the government and enrolled in state welfare programs, commodity foods such as bulk cheese, powdered milk and canned meat further undermined people’s sense of self-sufficiency and connection to the land and water.

Coincidentally, other pressures were beginning to be felt that would radically alter the landscape of people’s relationship to acequias. During the course of the 20th century the Pueblo and Mexicano people were socialized and schooled in institutions that undervalued the regional labor-intensive agriculture as well as the traditional diet of the people, in favor of large-scale out-of-state agriculture and the importation of foodstuffs such as sugar, coffee and white flour from other parts of the world. New Mexicans were steered away from agriculture toward wage-earning jobs. Many people loyal to the land attempted to do both, but in time discovered that such a regimen was deeply exhausting and mostly unsustainable. Much of the water from the acequias was then diverted to producing cash crops requiring little manual labor, such as alfalfa, or was allowed to find its way back to the river, leaving the fields permanently fallow. In time the two peoples who had acted as both the creators and stewards of these age-old waterways were forced by the prevailing conditions to ignore, or relegate to a secondary level of importance, their agricultural traditions, and with them, the acequias.

Concurrently, in 1907 the State Water Code redefined the use of the acequias’ water resources in terms of water rights measured in acre-feet of water, as opposed to the duration of water use in irrigation as had been customary during the Spanish and Mexican periods. Furthermore, the state decreed a separation of water use from land use and made it possible for people to lose their water rights even though they retained their land.

Given the interplay of these many complex forces, it is no surprise that by the late 1960s the subsistence agriculture for which New Mexico was known had virtually come to an end. Symptomatic of this development is the fact that, at present, of the approximately 9-12 original acequias that once crisscrossed Santa Fe, all but three have ceased to flow.

However, the late ‘60s was also the period during which the American Indian and Chicano movements stirred the memories and aspirations of both peoples and inspired a new wave of activism in defense of their traditions and homelands. This resulted in a movement to protect New Mexico’s land and water resources. It emerged simultaneously from communities such as Tierrra Amarilla, Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Mora and Taos in the form of local, regional and even statewide acequia associations. These associations have championed the plight of local acequia communities and of the parciantes (water rights holders and users) over those who would separate the land and water of a community for more industrial and urban purposes. They have also advocated for the maintenance and repair of the acequia infrastructures and recently launched mayordomo trainee programs and programs that stimulate the interest of youth in the region’s agricultural traditions. Both the New Mexico state Legislature and national and regional foundations have been responsive to requests for assistance in furthering these goals, and indeed, some progress has been made.

Today we witness two opposing movements whose decisions and actions will determine the ultimate destiny of New Mexico’s acequias. The first is the progressive desertification of New Mexico, the rapid growth of its urban centers and the extreme commodification of and competition for water resources. The second is a growing movement among Native American and Chicano people to recover the healthy traditions around land, food, water and work that they once had, which may be the only salvation for redeeming a generation of youth mired in drug and alcohol abuse—the symptoms of physical and spiritual dislocation from land, water and the traditional cultures that had once nourished them.

Echoing the latter local movement is a mainstream movement known through such terms as bioregionalism, sustainability, permaculture and farm-to-table. The sometimes parallel values of these “isms” at times coincide with those of native farmers, while other times they compete with and displace the local historically tied belief systems around land and water. Be that as it may, it is certain that northern New Mexico has become one of the country’s hot spots for organic farming, heirloom seed banking, and now, the veneration of acequias, together with the waters that flow through them.

More and more, local restaurants and stores, once the purveyors of almost exclusively out-of-state foodstuffs, are purchasing locally grown fruits and vegetables to meet their customers’ demand. Another aspect of this multifaceted movement to reclaim New Mexico’s potential to grow its own food and use its water wisely is the presence of large numbers of immigrants who are willing to roll up their sleeves and throw themselves wholeheartedly into the work required to make northern New Mexican plots productive again. They deserve respect for keeping many a small farm alive.

Will New Mexico’s youth, in spite of the rigor involved, join in to truly make this a sustainable movement, and in the process, create for themselves a life vibrant with all that the Earth and its water resources has to offer? Certainly in 50 years’ time we will know which of the two opposing paradigms will prevail: that of nearly indiscriminate water consumption in the service of maintaining a Midwestern-like urban and suburban lifestyle, or one oriented toward the affirmation of indigenous cultures and local food production.


Alejandro López is a photographer and writer in Spanish and English. He lives on an acequia and uses its water to raise crops. In 2012-2013 he served as coordinator of La Escuelita de las Acequias program of the New Mexico Acequia Association.

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