Acequias: Cultural Legacy and Grassroots Movement

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By Paula Garcia

(Published in Sustainable Santa Fe, an insert to the Santa Fe New Mexican, on October 12, 2007)

Driving down a rural highway in northern New Mexico, you are certain to come across a valley with acequias.  Unless you are deliberately looking for an acequia, you might not see one.  But someone with a sensitized eye could see the green ribbon of farmland, cottonwoods, and willows.  You might notice the kitchen gardens, occasional crops of corn, grain, or vegetables, or the more common fields of pasture or alfalfa.  Simple in their design, earthen acequias move water from a common source of water, a spring or a stream, through a delicate network that feeds fields that have been nurtured for generations.   These humble, community-based irrigation systems are integral to a land-based way of life that has sustained families in New Mexico for centuries and have inspired many newcomers to embrace the acequia culture. 

Acequias are part of an ancient legacy of water civilizations.  Their roots extend back thousands of years to the arid-land peoples of present-day India and the Middle East.  The word acequia is of Arabic origin meaning “bearer of water” or “that which quenches thirst.”  The acequias of the present-day southwest combine Moorish tradition inherited by Spain with the irrigation and agricultural techniques of the Americas.  The food traditions associated with the acequias are a rich expression of the synthesis of peoples and cultures who have sustained them over the ages.  Along with ancestral Pueblo and tribal water harvesting and irrigation structures that endure as part of New Mexico’s landscape, acequias further shaped the landscape and formed the basis for settlements of mestizos, genizaros, and mexicanos (collectively referred to as the Indo-Hispano people). 

In the United States, acequias are unique to New Mexico and Southern Colorado although in other areas of the present-day Southwest remnants of acequias exist as artifacts from an earlier era.  Their resilience in New Mexico and Southern Colorado can be explained in part by the fact that acequias continue to be vital to the spiritual and material existence of the communities of the region.  Thousands of families continue to derive all or part of their subsistence or livelihood from their ranchitos or small-scale farms and ranches.  More importantly, acequias endure in large part because of attachment to place, the miracles made possible with water, and the cultural longing to continue ancestral practices and pass them on to future generations. 

The deep cultural place acequias have in our communities can be explained to some extent by their communal roots.  Generally, acequias were established as part of the community land grants under Spain and Mexico (although some were established during the territorial period, they continued to be founded on the same principles).  Under that system, the communal or collective ownership of property was well-established and a concept that was inherently compatible with the lifeways of land-based people.  Families owned their suertes (the long lots that comprise today’s small-scale farms and ranches) and the remaining lands, vegas (meadows/wetlands) and montes (mountains), were for the use of all the community.  Before the advent of barbed wire fence, livestock grazed throughout the mountains and valleys as a herd under the watchful eye of a shepherd. 

Acequias were established within this worldview and the notion that water is a community resource permeates modern-day acequia practices.  The Indo-Hispano villages faced tremendous challenges to survive in such a water scarce environment.  Bringing water to crops by constructing an acequia was one of the first priorities of establishing a community.  Water scarcity was an ever-present challenge.  Over time, these communities evolved unique customs of distributing water based on the fundamental principle that water was essential to live and that it had to be shared for the common good.  Today, this practice, which is referred to as the repartimiento or reparto, is one of the most enduring characteristics of the acequias.  It is the day-to-day embodiment of the belief that water is life.  It is a living example of a community-based response to the scarcity of a precious, life-giving resource.

The communal view of land and water was confronted with Manifest Destiny through westward expansion of the United States, which culminated in the US war against Mexico.  Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the agreement between the US and Mexico that marked the end of that war in 1848, guaranteed the rights of the Mexicans who remained in the ceded territories (including New Mexico), the vast majority of mercedes or common lands were expropriated through privatization of incorporation into the US federally-owned lands.  This loss remains vivid in the collective memory of the Indo-Hispano people of the region.

For the acequias, the course of history has unraveled differently.  Although acequias are also communal institutions, they remain largely intact.  The water rights or derechos owned by families were attached to their suertes or ranchitos and were not expropriated in the 1800s as were many of the community land grants.  The Territorial Water Code of 1850 codified the basic principles of acequia governance including the democratic election of the mayordomo and the practice of sharing the water among acequias that share a stream system.  However, later water codes and eventually the laws of enacted with statehood changed the nature of acequia water rights in fundamental ways:

·          Prior appropriation vs. Custom:  Water law in the Western United States is based on this doctrine, which is summarized as “first in time, first in right.”  For acequias it was a mixed blessing.  It seemed to conflict with the repartimiento but it also conferred a relatively senior status, and therefore an implied protected status, of acequia water rights.  Fortunately for acequias, water sharing customs are still recognized in state law and these customs exist even within statewide framework of prior appropriation.

·          Transferability of Water Rights:  According to acequia custom and tradition, acequia water rights are attached to the land and the right to use water is conditioned on having good standing in the acequia by meeting responsibilities for cooperative maintenance.  However, the water code and later case law explicitly defined acequia water rights as transferable.  This left acequias vulnerable to a piecemeal dismantling of the collective attributes of water and labor needed for the ditch to function.  In the broader sense, it made rural communities of having their water rights base eroded at the hand of a water market that favors the movement of water to entities and regions with greater economic power. 

Throughout most of the state, acequia customary practices continued uninterrupted for several decades after statehood despite these sweeping changes in water law.  This changed in the 1960s acequia parciantes (irrigators and water right owners) were named as defendants in water right adjudications.  Two decades later, acequias organized themselves into regional associations to unify for common defense in these lawsuits filed by the state.  These acequia leaders were on the forefront of preventing the forfeiture of water rights by the state due to errors in mapping and of defending acequia water sharing customs.  It was an exceptional effort and an important chapter in the land and water rights movement in New Mexico that is often overlooked.  Although elders have passed on, many of these leaders continue to defend acequias in these seemingly endless adjudications.

In the 1980s acequias became active on another front: protesting water transfers.  Pressures to move water from agriculture to new development began to mount in the 1980s with unprecedented population growth and urbanization.  Acequias in their respective communities were actively engaged in filing protests to applications to transfer water rights out of acequias.  Like the leaders defending acequias in adjudication, those resisting the commodification of water articulate reasons that water was vital to community survival and integral to the cultural heritage of the state.  Results were mixed but it was clear to those seeking to transfer acequia water rights, such as developers, that acequia leadership would be vocal in their defense of their culture and way of life.

In the 1990s the acequias came together to form the Congreso de las Acequias, the federation of regional associations of acequias that form the governing body of the New Mexico Acequia Association.  The Congreso includes regional delegations from 22 different regions of the state where acequias are organized (or in the process of organizing) associations of acequias at the watershed level.  The number of acequias represented by these regional delegations is over 500.

In the 2000s, acequias sought to restore greater recognition of acequia governance in state law and actively mobilized to challenge the commodification of water.  Since then, the New Mexico Acequia Association has effectively mobilized to define and pass several pieces of legislation:

·          Water Transfer Regulation:  The transfer of water rights is a well-established concept in state law.  In order to restore some local decision-making, state law was amended in 2003 to recognize the authority of acequias to institute a decision-making process for water transfers out of acequias.  This new law is a historic affirmation of the importance of retaining local decision-making over water.

·          Acequia Water Banking:  This law, passed in 2003, authorized acequias to operate “water banks” to promote conservation and shield water rights from loss for non use.  Water rights not in use are documented and then incorporated into the irrigation schedule for the other users.  Water rights “banked” in this way are shielded from the “use it or lose it” provision in state law.

·          Acequia Easement Enforcement:  Acequias have historic rights-of-way that must remain accessible to continue to function as community-based systems.  The law was amended in 2004 to provide enforcement tools acequias can use to protect their easements.

·          Acequia Governance Education and Training:  In 2007, the State Legislature appropriated funds for education on acequia governance to aid in the implementation of recently passed laws and to update acequia bylaws, the governing documents required of each acequia. 


Also, during the 2007 legislative session, the NMAA hosted the first ever Acequia Day at the New Mexico State Legislature.  Over 500 acequia parciantes and supporters attended a water blessing ceremony.  The day was memorialized with SM 35 sponsored by Phil Griego and a special certificate from House Speaker Ben Lujan recognizing the significance of acequias.  Since then the NMAA has formalized the Acequia Governance Project the purpose of which is to retain local ownership and control of water rights by strengthening local acequia governance. 

All of these activities are a manifestation of the deep commitment on the part of acequia leadership to address the root causes of the greatest challenges facing the acequias.  While most of this work has focused on water rights, recent initiatives of the New Mexico Acequia Association address other fundamental issues including the need to strengthen and rebuild local food systems and to engage younger generations in agriculture. 

·          The Nuestra Cosecha project includes an intensive food system assessment based on numerous interview and community meetings as well as statistical information.  Findings of the food system assessment will be presented at policy roundtables later this fall and will serve as the basis for making policy recommendations aimed at improving the economic viability of small-scale farming and ranching. 

·          The Sembrando Semillas project is geared toward creating a new generation of acequia parciantes who have a strong feeling of querencia (love of place) and who have the ability to be advocates for the acequias in years to come.  The project engages youth in hands-on learning experiences with traditional farmers and ranchers serving as mentors.  The youth produce digital storytelling pieces about their experiences. 

Additionally, the NMAA is engaged in strategic alliances on issues of great concern to farmers and ranchers.  One is the New Mexico Food and Seed Sovereignty Alliance, which is a collaboration with the Traditional Native American Farmers Association to increase the cultivation of foods that are spiritually and culturally meaningful to our communities and to protect native seeds from genetic engineering.  Another collaboration is Communities for Clean Water which includes several groups that advocate for cleaning up and preventing contamination by Los Alamos National Laboratories. 

Our ancestors might not have imagined the extent of work done today just to protect the acequias.  Through their dedication to collective work and governance, our current generation inherited a remarkable legacy unique to the present-day Southwest.  But even more important than the advocacy and movement building are the parciantes that are living the culture by irrigating their crops and continuing the cultural and spiritual traditions intertwined with the acequias.  All of those efforts collectively make up today’s acequia system.  But not forgotten are those who for countless generations with their energy, prayer, laughter, and work left their imprint on the land.

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