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Ancient Traditions Keep Desert Waters Flowing

New Mexico's acequias—communal irrigation canals—still function as a tool to preserve and share scarce desert water.

Arturo Sandoval’s article “Ancient Traditions Keep Desert Waters Flowing” in the Summer 2010 issue of YES! Magazine, the Water Solutions issue.

New Mexico has a spiritual power emanating from the landscape—its rios, mesas, llanos, sierras—that informs our traditional cultures.

Native Americans live each day in a vibrant relationship with everything around them. For them, New Mexico is not just a place to live. It is a way to live.

Similarly, Indo-Hispanos have created an intimate relationship with the landscape over the past three or four centuries. They built acequias—communal irrigation systems—not only to sustain an agricultural lifestyle, but also to caress and sustain the Earth and its natural creatures.

Acequias evolved over 10,000 years in the deserts of the Middle East and were introduced into southern Spain by the Moors during their nearly 800-year occupation. Spanish colonizers took acequias to the New World. Acequias included specific governance over water distribution, water scarcity plans, and all other matters pertaining to what was viewed as a communal resource. The mayordomo, or watermaster, of the acequia made decisions about water distribution among community members, with the consent and advice of the acequia members.

Long Live the Art of Irrigation
Acequias_Side Photo by Samantha Mascareñas
Andrew Mascareñas' story of the importance of flood irrigating to his family and to the culture of New Mexico.

This communal system of irrigating was a response to the scarcity of water in arid regions and was key to the survival of agricultural communities. In many instances, the acequia governance system was also used to settle other community conflicts, especially in areas like New Mexico, located far from the seat of government in Mexico City. The irrigation system that evolved over centuries and that was implemented in New Mexico was created to ensure a formal civil process to resolve water-rights issues, especially in dry times. Each irrigator had one vote to elect the mayordomo. The mayordomo had ultimate authority over water disputes and his word was final. He derived his authority from the communal power vested in him by all of the irrigators.

In the spring, every able-bodied male was required to show up on the appointed day and time to clean and repair the acequia madre—the mother ditch from which each individual plot received irrigation water. Once the main irrigation canal was repaired and water began flowing, the mayordomo monitored the use of water for irrigation by each acequia member. Each member was assigned a specific time each week to irrigate his personal field. If an irrigator used water without the mayordomo’s permission, he was severely punished by having water withheld from his fields. If the acequia madre was breached during the year, the mayordomo called on every irrigator to help repair it. This was considered a sacred duty.

This commitment to maintaining the village’s primary irrigation supply bonded villagers together over the years. The concept of working communally became an integral part of a village’s world view: the group was valued over the individual.

Community in a Changed World

This model of cooperation and communal ownership can be a guide as we enter a time when climate change, lack of oil, or economic turmoil will require deep change in the way we live.

Author James Howard Kunstler predicts a “long emergency”—a time when world oil production peaks and the remaining oil to be exploited is geometrically more difficult and expensive to find and extract. What that means is that we will be pushed to plant and grow food closer to home, since transporting food from other parts of the world will become too expensive due to the rising cost of oil. Our energy-intensive water systems, based on moving huge amounts of water long distances or pumping it from deep underground, will become unworkable. Homegrown food will become affordable once again, and acequia systems can step in to provide the water to produce healthy, affordable, locally-grown food for local foodsheds.

Kunstler argues that this long emergency as we move into an oil-depleted economy will change forever everything about a society so dependent on cheap petroleum. He presents a bleak future for all of us.

He does, however, offer one ray of hope: “If there is any positive side to stark changes coming our way, it may be in the benefits of close communal relations, of having to really work intimately (and physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead of being merely entertained to avoid boredom.”

I would argue that we already have those conditions to live successfully in a postmodern world in New Mexico. We have those close communal relationships.

We need to study our acequias to see how people can find a livable future using the most effective power source available—local communal vision,  cooperation, and mutual support.

Collaboration Across Cultures

To do that, we need to learn how to celebrate our roots and culture and still cross our individual cultural boundaries in hopes of building successful collaborations. We all want healthy people and communities; we all want good health care; we all want a good education for our children; we all want decent housing; we all want justice and peace in our lives.

But for us to reach those goals, we all have to examine our own practices and beliefs. The acequias and other communal traditions in New Mexico demonstrate the positive values that permit us to embrace each other despite our fears and biases. We must build on those and root out those negative behaviors that limit our capacity to grow and give.

We are blessed to have living among us a native son, our Chicano poet laureate, Jimmy Santiago Baca. For him, the Rio Grande is sacred. I leave you with a piece from his latest work:

Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande”:

Acequias Photo by David Bales

The acequias of New Mexico are communal irrigation canals, a way to share water for agriculture in a dry land. Excavated in the early 18th century, this acequia is in the village of Corrales, along the Rio Grande. Tiwa Indians irrigated farmland in the area as long as 1.300 years ago.

Photo by David Bales

“Sometimes I stand on the river bank
and feel the water take my pain,
allow my nostalgic brooding
a reprieve.
The water flows south,
constantly redrafting its story
which is my story,
rising and lowering with glimmering meanings—
here nations drown their stupid babbling,
bragging senators are mere geese droppings in the mud,
radicals and conservatives are stands of island grass,
and the water flows on,
cleansing, baptizing Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.
I yearn to move past these days of hate and racism.
That is why this Rio Grande,
these trees and sage bushes
the geese, horses, dogs and river stones
are so important to me—
with them
I go on altering my reptilian self,
reaching higher notes of being
on my trombone heart,
pulsing out into the universe, my music
according to the leaf’s music sheet,
working, with a vague indulgence toward a song
called
we the people.”


Sandoval-Mug.jpgArturo Sandoval wrote this article for Water Solutions, the Summer 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Arturo is founder and president of VOCES, Inc. and the Center of Southwest Culture, Inc. He has been active for more than 40 years in community, cultural, environmental, and civil rights efforts in New Mexico and across the United States.

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