In the Water-Scarce Southwest, an Ancient Irrigation System Disrupts Big Agriculture

In New Mexico and Colorado, the “acequia” is more than just democratic water distribution—it is at the center of Southwest culture.
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For over a century, acequias have resisted the flow of water toward corporations in New Mexico and Colorado.

Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images.

Water in the American Southwest has never been abundant. Its availability fluctuates depending on conditions like drought and mountain snowpack that feeds streams and rivers. But experts predict a future of greater extremes: longer and hotter heat waves in the summer, less precipitation, decreased snowpack, and more severe and frequent droughts that will place greater stress on water users.

Experts predict a future of greater extremes.

In New Mexico and Colorado, legal statutes enable an area’s original water users to transfer their portions of the resource, via pipelines, to the highest bidder virtually anywhere in the state. When scarcity hits, industrial mining and agricultural operations can afford to purchase additional water while small-scale farmers and ranchers remain vulnerable; in both states, water use already exceeds availability.

But for over a century, acequias—an ancient form of community water management originating at least 1,000 years ago and now used by small-scale and backyard farmers and ranchers—have resisted the flow of water toward corporations in New Mexico and Colorado. After receiving wider legal protections for self-governance in the 2000s, acequias are disrupting modern agricultural practices by assuring the equitable distribution of water to rural communities.

An ancient system of water management

Acequias appeared in the United States centuries before New Mexico and Colorado were incorporated into the nation: more than a century, in fact, before the United States even existed. Brought by Spanish settlers to Mexican territory in the 16th century (including what is today the American Southwest), acequias were a system perfectly suited to the arid, high-elevation landscape where drought was common and the availability of water varied drastically from season to season and year to year.

The equity in this system is especially important in drought years.

Today, acequias function much as they did 400 years ago: as a series of irrigation ditches that harness gravity to distribute water. The allocation of water is democratic, where each participating farmer or rancher (called parciantes) is allotted an equal vote in how to manage the season’s water in exchange for cleaning and maintaining the ditch system.

The equity in this system is especially important in drought years, says Ralph Vigil, chair of the New Mexico Acequia Commission. “Acequias are unique in that they share in times of shortages. There’s not one person who’s going to get more water than the next person.”

Los Chicos acequia near Velarde, New Mexico. By practicing centuries-old methods of farming, acequias are standing against the industrialization of food and water.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

But acequias are about far more than just water distribution: They are at the center of the dynamic, living heritage of Southwestern communities, a heritage that includes traditional methods of food production and preparation, ecosystem sustainability, ancestral learning, and oral customs. “Most of us are still very much dedicated to a communal, more spiritual, and more ecological view of water,” says Devon Peña, professor of American ethnic studies at the University of Washington and founder of the Acequia Institute in southern Colorado.

Modern water laws rule in Western states

Despite its cultural and ecological value, because of its scarcity, water in the U.S. West has always been political. In New Mexico and Colorado, today’s legal system marginalizes the much older acequia system. According to the doctrine of so-called prior appropriation—which is at the center of water law in 19 Western states—an area’s first water users are given “senior” rights to that original quantity year after year.

In many respects, says environmental attorney Jeffrey J. Wechsler, water under prior appropriation is treated as “a form of property that can be bought and sold and transferred.” Prior appropriation and the buying and selling of senior water rights can benefit industrial operations—like mining—that require large quantities of water and can afford to buy it.

Water in the U.S. West has always been political.

Water in both New Mexico and Colorado, and in the Southwestern region in general, is already being used more rapidly than it can be replenished. It is, in a word, over-allocated—users own rights to more water than actually exists. The decreasing availability of water anticipated over the coming years will only exacerbate the problem and is likely to require state water managers and policymakers to appropriate the rights of some users to fulfill the needs of others.

So who loses their water? “Those water rights have to come from somewhere,” says Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. “The prevailing trend? It comes from agriculture.” And because large commercial operations are more economically and politically powerful than small-scale ones, it is family farms and ranches that are likely to be hit the hardest.

In New Mexico and Colorado, the law recognizes acequias differently.

In New Mexico, acequias have the second most-senior right to water in the state’s 1882 territorial code and subsequent constitution (after indigenous communities, whose pre-colonial origins make them the region’s first water users). And thanks to the establishment of statutes in 2003 recognizing their right to self-determination, acequias now have greater protections against the syphoning of their water to financially and politically advantaged users.

“They have some say in determining their own future.”

Despite these protections, though, acequias are still vulnerable. That’s because each acequia is made up of a volunteer group of people coming together to protect a valuable resource in a high-poverty rural area, says Garcia. Because of this, acequias are susceptible to financial pressures that may prevent members from participating or that might make the group, as a whole, interested in selling their water rights.

While the new statute may not protect acequias against every threat, it does give them “a fighting chance,” Garcia says. “They have some say in determining their own future.”

In Colorado, acequias were only legally recognized in 2009. “They erased us for over 100 years,” says Peña, whose academic research and writing became the framework and basis for the law.

In Colorado and New Mexico, acequias offer a democratic—and more sustainable—alternative

Simply by practicing centuries-old methods of farming, acequias are standing against the industrialization of food and water. For one, acequias offer an alternative to the technology employed by the region’s corporate farming and ranching operations. Unlike modern, mechanized irrigation, flood irrigation from acequia ditches leaves some water unused in low-lying areas called “sumps.” From these, acequias create wetlands and wildlife corridors and their runoff returns to streams and aquifers.

In the naturally irrigated fields (milpas), farmers grow dozens of heritage plant species. “Any square foot of acequia milpa will be packed with life,” Peña says, “including all the companion plants that we grow on purpose and those that come as volunteers.”

“Not only are we disruptive—we are decolonizing the water law.”

And as a democratic system of water management, acequias offer an alternative to prior appropriation—a system that commodifies water—in both Colorado and New Mexico. “Not only are we disruptive—we are decolonizing the water law,” Peña says. Age-old forms of self-governance like acequias, which organize community members to make use equitably of a shared resource, “now have no choice but to be anti-capitalist.”

Peña says that, nevertheless, in Colorado acequias are still in many ways fighting an uphill battle to secure full rights to a resource the state depends on to expand the economy.

In New Mexico, agitating on the fringes of the political landscape has limited value. For acequias to persist and thrive, they must navigate state policy from the inside. “Our survival depends on civic engagement,” Garcia says.

The “acequia viewpoint” is being sought out by policymakers.

Acequias face other challenges, too. Both Weschler and Peña are the first to admit that the acequia does not always function smoothly by the principle of “one irrigator, one vote.” Internal politics are often afoot. “Acequias are only as good as the people who manage and maintain them,” says Vigil. And in cases in which parciantes cannot work out their differences and the irrigation ditches go unused for five years, the state can reappropriate the water rights.

Still, acequias provide a real opportunity in the Southwest for responding to changing environmental conditions and promoting the conservation of scarce resources, including the heritage of the people that use them.

For the first time, the “acequia viewpoint” is being sought out by policymakers and agricultural actors in New Mexico. Recently, for example, Garcia was invited to speak at a conference for the Water Resources Research Institute, hosted by New Mexico Senator Tom Udall. “We’ve gained a certain level of respect in water policy circles,” she says, and that may result in enduring changes that have an effect on state water management in the long term.

In the meantime, both the New Mexico Acequia Association and Peña’s Acequia Institute are working to attract youth to farming and ranching in order to insure the survival of acequias for future generations. “We need to make some profound changes in the way we educate our young people,” Garcia says. “There’s something beautiful about this way of life.”

Vigil agrees: “Acequias, they’re the lifeblood of our communities.”