The Art of Acequia Irrigation In Times of Drought

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LaEscarda: Hoeing weeds is probably the most important activity to support crop growth in general but especially during drought -Photo taken by Miguel Santistevan
















Written By, Miguel Santistevan

It is difficult to write a piece on ‘the art of acequia irrigation’ at a time when so many parciantes are already feeling the effects of water shortage.  Many acequias are dry or drying up and irrigators are struggling to get sufficient water to their fields.  These times of water shortage remind of times when the ancestors of acequia culture also withstood drought.  Times of drought likely motivated our water sharing customs in addition to the development of methods, crops, and ceremonies that helped weather water scarcity and became cornerstone to acequia traditions.

Research into acequia culture across the region has allowed me the privilege of interacting with many acequiero/as that shared information with me which is profound and relevant in adapting to water shortage.  In my last article on acequia irrigation in the Summer 2017 edition of ‘Noticias,’ I wrote about the traditional terracing systems in the acequia landscape and re-creating irrigation structures that create water conservation in soils through refined irrigation techniques.  Application of these techniques can conserve irrigation water as soil moisture that can have lasting benefits through the growing season and beyond.

But once acequia waters run out, other methods need to come into play to optimize the harvest given the potential deadly effect of water scarcity, heat, and wind to crop production.  A primary consideration for weathering drought is to shift the cropping system toward crop types that are hardier during dry years.  A memory of “secano” or “al temporal” styles of dryland or rainfed agriculture reminds of us the potential for crops to survive, and even thrive, during dry years.  Crops such as habas (fava beans), alberjón (peas), trigo (wheat), cebada (barley), garbanzo beans, lentils, and a diverse array of beans like bolitas have been successful in dryland conditions.  Many of these crops are also frost tolerant and can make use of early springtime precipitation, even snow, and will not freeze while giving us a head start on the season before water stress of the summer fully sets in.

Legumes: Legumes such as lentils (center), beans (left), and habas (right), can be planted early and withstand frost and water stress to varying degrees -Photo taken by Miguel Santistevan

For acequia crop production in general, I remember the wisdom in the saying, “Es mas importante escardar y arrimar la tierra que regar.”  (It is more important to cultivate your soil and mound your crops with soil than to irrigate.)  This saying points to two of the most important things we can do to adapt to drought: care for our soils and care for our crops.

Caring for our soils means limiting erosion, salinity, and building up the organic matter content.  Augmenting soils with compost and manure adds organic matter, which then acts as a sponge to absorb moisture when it is available from irrigation or precipitation.  Not only does adding organic matter help support the crops and soil microbiology, it is also the most promising tool for farmers and land managers to mitigate climate change by putting carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil.

The process of cultivating the soil and forming mounds around the stems and stalks of crops not only controls weeds that compete for soil nutrients and moisture, but also oxygenates the root zone.  An elder once told me that corn in particular likes oxygen more than it likes water.  When I received this information, I was taught to vigorously cultivate the soil and pile it around the plants with a hoe, and to not be afraid to cut the roots of the crops in the process.  This was surprising to me, but I later experienced a new vitality in the crops that lasted for several days.  If rains did not come, another round of soil cultivation allowed for continued survival until rains do come.  Perhaps this is due to the wisdom found in another saying, “el mejor humido para las plantas es el sudor del frente.”  (The best moisture for plants is the sweat of the brow.)

Arrimando: A farmer can support individual plants by piling soil around the stalk and even mulching to conserve soil moisture. -Photo taken by Miguel Santistevan

Another important, and maybe the most important, factor we have to remember that comes with acequia culture is the importance of faith in our activities.  An elder woman once shared with me that the reason we are suffering drought is because we aren’t gathering at the church to take the Saints on processions along the acequias and laterals during dry spells.  There is much reason to believe that gathering in ceremony can create positive effects in the environment through our collective intention.  Relationships between neighbors can also be strengthened and maintained through this kind of gathering; relationships that can also strengthen our sense of community, security, and mutualism in ways that were common to acequia culture in the near past.  If we re-learn to equitably share scarce water and work together in community, we can not only have a better result at harvest time, but also maintain the essence of acequia culture that allowed us to survive in community over millennia.

*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


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