The Art of Acequia Irrigation

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By Miguel Santistevan

Irrigating the land can be the best part of the acequia season next to the harvest.  After all the meetings, the acequia cleanings, and hours upon hours of getting the land ready; there is hardly a feeling more satisfying than watching the first water flow onto your land to quench its thirst.  As the water seeps into the soil, sighs of relief bubble forth like an exhalation from the water percolation that awakens the soil biology and recharges the shallow aquifer.  The plants perk up with the water soaking their roots and the birds come to sing, bathe, and hunt worms while the noble irrigator oversees and directs the water to flow onto every square inch of the land possible.  The feeling of satisfaction is augmented knowing that this sacred act embodies the continuation of ancient culture, provides an opportunity for livelihood, and is the basis for food traditions that are best when they are homegrown.

As has been noted by many acequieros y acequieras, irrigation requires a considerable amount of skill to move water effectively across the landscape.  Flowing water can easily be underestimated and get out of control while the landscape also has its character of high points, low points, rocks, and vegetation patches that can affect how water moves or doesn't move.  Luckily, many fields come with intergenerational improvements and practices that are carried on from centuries of irrigation refinement.  In other cases, acequias have been impacted by development and have had laterals and other structures all but erased, complicating the continuation of irrigation.  Many fields shifted from mixed-use agriculture production to pasture and have been negatively impacted with tractors and other machinery.  The use of tractors and machinery is a more recent development that redefined our agricultural production and brought possibilities and efficiency in times when help from the community became harder to find.

An unintended effect in the use of tractors on our lands was impacts to a terracing system across property lines that was created over the life of the acequia and maintained with the force of water, animal, and community power.  Over time the delineations of the terraces, their connections to the overall acequia landscape, and their uses can be lost along with local knowledge and acequia structure and function.  Terms that relate the proximity to the acequia and land uses such as in the altitos, la joya, la vega, and la cienega or estero can be lost along with laterals and irrigation units known as melgas and eras.   These terms and their application could be helpful in understanding the relationship of the land to irrigation and its acequia source while conserving the connection between culture, language, and resource management.

Fortunately, an understanding of the landscape that is based on as much historical knowledge as possible, can help restore and re-create irrigation structures on the land.  An understanding of the topography, slope, and watershed/acequia context of the land to be irrigated is essential for the effective movement of water.  The contour of the land can be identified with an A-frame, transit, or water level, and can aid in the establishment of irrigation channels that flow slowly over the landscape and are directed using the slope, gravity, and a shovel as the guides.  The ultimate goal is to keep all the water on your land while providing maximum opportunity for absorption and percolation into the soil.  Only through practice and observation, with respect given to the memory held in the landscape, can a person ever hope to be a regador or regadora, master irrigator.

Miguel Santistevan has been dedicated to agriculture/acequia conservation and education for 23 years.  He has a Master's in Agriculture Ecology and design certifications in Permaculture and ZERI and does consulting.  His greatest accomplishment is husband and father for his family in Taos, NM.  He can be contacted at