Acequias Nurture both land and customs of El Norte

I was a long way from home and yet felt that everything around me was oddly familiar. There at the magnificent Alhambra in Granada, Spain, the tiled roofs and whitewashed walls, the ornate ceilings and horseshoe archways — not to mention the intricate Arabic calligraphy in the golden stucco — resembled not at all the flat-roofed, brown-stuccoed adobes of New Mexico. But the dry air and the wide-open blue sky evoked the ampleness of light and space that I so love about the Southwestern U.S. And here I was in the Patio de la Acequia, a place whose name rings with familiar words of the Spanish spoken back home in Chimayó.

I grew up among many acequias, those small, winding waterways that bring life to the gardens and orchards in Chimayó and all over New Mexico and southern Colorado. These, like the acequia in the Alhambra and others in Spain, have their origins in Arabic North Africa during a time when much of Europe convulsed with the traumas of the Middle Ages. Then, engineers and laborers under Islamic caliphates designed and built as-sāqiyas to channel water to the agricultural lands and towns spread throughout the flourishing Islamic world. Acequias, along with the associated body of formal, written water law and the word “acequia” itself, reached the Iberian peninsula in the early eighth century C.E. and later came to the New World with the Spanish colonization of the Americas.

It’s hard to imagine this vaunted history when you’re bent over a shovel, heaving mud and sand from a dry ditch under the warmth of the New Mexican spring sun. Yet this is a ritual that goes on each year in Northern New Mexico, as it has since 1599, when the first Spanish colonists founded their regional capital, San Gabriel. Digging the acequia was a defining act in the establishment of Spanish and Mexican communities throughout New Mexico, including the plazas in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Mesilla, for the next 200 years. Sometimes, this entailed scraping out the acequia with wooden hand tools through rocky terrain for many miles from distant mountains, where they diverted waters from snowmelt-fed streams.  

The springtime custom of sacando la acequia (clearing the ditch), remains one of the primary markers of the annual calendar in New Mexico, a time when the land and people turn the corner from a long winter and embrace the promise of spring. I’ve taken part in this backbreaking, ditch-cleaning ritual a few times, but not often, as I am not and have never been a farmer. And in this respect, you might say I’m part of the problem facing acequias in New Mexico today: Many people live on but do not live off the land, and so they have little incentive to take care of the acequias. As a result, many ditches have fallen into disrepair and some have been abandoned. 

On the other hand, I love fresh chile from small

New Mexico farms, and I’ll pay a premium price for it, and in this sense I am part of the solution. A growing appreciation for locally grown produce, including old time chile varieties, as well as corn, bean, squash and other vegetables and fruits, is prompting something of a renaissance of small-scale agriculture — and a resurgence of interest in maintaining and using the old acequias. 

Huertas, mayordomos, parciantes y mas

The move away from agriculture began long ago in my family. My great-grandfather José de los Reyes Ortega was a farmer in Chimayó, just like all his neighbors, and he used water from the Ortega acequia to grow chile, corn, beans and melons in the patchwork of fields that stretched from the Plaza del Cerro to the rocky foothills of the mountains. But as industrialization forced legions of young men nationwide to scramble far and wide for work, Reyes instead made his first steps away from his largely agrarian world by weaving blankets for tourists in Santa Fe and founding a weaving shop in Chimayó. 

The retreat from farming as a way of life and toward cities intensified after Reyes’ generation and has continued until today. Small huertas (garden plots) and orchards are still part of the landscape and still figure prominently into the character of northern communities. But in many places, the acequia has become more of an historic artifact than an essential source of water, and many fields sprout trailer homes instead of chile fields. 

Estevan Arrellano, a farmer who has also been a comisionado (commissioner) and a mayordomo (ditch boss) on the Acequia Junta y Cienega in Dixon, New Mexico, knows all too well the problems that afflict acequias throughout the state. He’s made it his business to try and preserve them, including the political organization and customs that go along with them.

“We’re facing a lot of serious problems,” Arrellano acknowledges. “And we’ve already lost a lot of acequias — three or four here in the Embudo valley alone. First, there’s the basic demographics,” he explains. “The parciantes [member farmers] on my ditch — and on most ditches in New Mexico — are getting quite old, and we’re not getting any new blood. And then the new people moving in and buying land, they don’t always understand the way acequias are supposed to work. They think that paying their dues is all they have to do. Hardly anyone — old timers or newcomers — wants to come to meetings because they don’t want to be drafted to be mayordomo. And then they don’t want to follow the bylaws. They think they’re antiquated.”

There is no arguing that the rules and customs of the acequias reach back into antiquity. But instead of a liability, Arrellano suggests that their vintage demonstrates how the acequia system has passed the test of time, by serving the needs of agricultural communities for a very long time. “Ours are the oldest water management rules of European origin in North America,” Arrellano says. “And they say that everyone on a watercourse has to share the water. But we have problems with people taking the water out of turn, or not paying dues, or even pumping right out of the river or the ditch. It’s hard to keep things working smoothly, especially since people don’t always respect the mayordomo anymore. Back in my youth, the mayordomo’s word was the law.”

Twenty miles as the crow flies from Arrellano’s small Dixon farm, Sam Martinez faces some of the same challenges on his farm beside the Rio Chama. He is a commissioner on one acequia, a mayordomo on two, and a member of six. When I asked Sam how things were going on his ditches, he replied, “Well, so far everyone is cooperating to take care of the ditches and use them, and they pay their dues — even though sometimes you have to threaten to hit them over the head with a stick! But at the same time, it is getting tougher because people don’t want to farm anymore and they’re neglecting the land. It’s sort of sad, like in Tierra Azul, there’s only three of us who really care about the ditch, and one of the other two, ya esta muy viejita [is already very old] — and I’m getting that way, too — and nowadays, no hay chamacos que valen dos reales [There aren’t any young guys worth twenty-five cents!]. But I can’t blame them,” he acknowledges, “because the thing is, no hay dinero [there’s no money] in farming. You gotta have a second job. And now, they don’t want two jobs.”

Sam also runs into other problems connected to much larger, regional issues. Much of his acreage lies just outside of Abiquiu, alongside the muddy waters of the Rio Chama. It would seem by the size of that major watercourse that Sam would never have to worry about having enough water, but in fact he sometimes has to watch the river flow by while his acequias barely carry any water. 

Two kinds of water

“Yes, it looks like a lot of water, but you know what?” Sam lamented to me. “That looks like one river, but there’s two kinds of water in it — San Juan-Chama water, and the native water. We can only use the native water. We can’t touch the rest because it has to go on down to Santa Fe and Albuquerque.”

Sam’s dilemma has its origins in a deal that was struck back in the 1960s, when city planners and farmers downriver on the Rio Grande feared a future with insufficient water for the growing populace. They hatched a plan to divert water from southern Colorado, pass it through tunnels beneath the mountains and dump it into the Chama at a new reservoir, Heron Lake. The San Juan-Chama project was one of many in the federal government’s elaborate, expensive scheme to dam and divert hundreds of rivers in the West and put their water to use for large-scale agriculture and urban development. 

“Anytime that the small tributaries of the Chama run really low, those of us in the Rio Chama Acequia Association have to be very careful about what we draw,” Sam explained. “Last year, for example, because the drought was so bad, we had to reduce our flows by half and shut off our ditches for twenty-four hours per week per ditch, so we wouldn’t be taking the San Juan-Chama water. And they monitor our diversions remotely, through a satellite link. We had a call last year about the Acequia Tierra Azul. They said, ‘Hey, you guys are exceeding your flow.’ So I had to run out there and cut back the diversion.” 

Because of the high-tech monitoring of water flow and the high-stakes water game that he must take part in, Sam does something that mayordomos of the past would never have dreamed of doing: “I start up my computer first thing in the morning and I check the Internet to see the flow coming into the Tierra Azul acequia — a gauge records the flow every 15 minutes — to see where we’re at and if I have to put on my boots and head for the headgate.” 

Things are much more low-tech in Chimayó, where Jody Apple is one of three people who share the responsibility of being mayordomo on the Acequia de los Ortegas. She, too, acknowledges many of the oft-repeated difficulties facing acequias, but she cites several reasons for her optimism about the Ortega acequia. “We are very fortunate,” she says, “because even though only nine or ten out of the thirty landowners on the ditch actually use the water, they’re all helping to keep it up. In fact, for the past four years, we haven’t had to hire labor to take care of it, like we had to before. Our acequia community has gotten involved again. Still, it’s not easy. The maintenance needs are constant, especially on the upper ditch. Whenever it rains hard, the presa [diversion dam] washes out and we have to get people together to go out and fix it — again.”

One of the motivations for keeping the Ortega acequia running is supplying water to Gemini Farms on Jody’s land. This organic farm, run by Bret Ellison and Alexis Elton, grows garlic, carrots, beets and brassicas. They use old and new irrigation technology in tandem to make their operation thrive, drawing water from the Ortega acequia into metal pipes with gates for each crop row.

The Plaza del Cerro and its tiny Acequia de los Ortegas is a far cry from the sumptuous Patio de la Acequia in Spain, but both — as well as hundreds of other ditches in New Mexico and southern Colorado — have endured for many centuries. Yet, these far-flung waterways now collectively face what may be the greatest trial of all: coping with the warming temperatures and decreased moisture that are inevitable consequences of the climate change that is shaking up weather patterns worldwide. 

For this daunting challenge there is no easy solution. Although more efficient use of water clearly must be part of the response, the urgency of the situation demands more than technological fixes. In these trying times it would be wise to consider the land ethic that drives Sam Martinez and Estevan Arrellano to care for their farms and fields and for the water that nurtures them. As Sam puts it, “The land is just too precious, my friend, to sit by and watch it wither. We’ve got to take care of it.”

“Yes,” echoes Arrellano. “And to do this, we have to cooperate, all of us, because, like the old dicho [folk saying] says: Una mano lava la otra y las dos la cara.” One hand washes the other and the two of them wash the face.

Don Usner, who was born in Embudo, N.M. and grew up in Los Alamos and Chimayó, holds a master’s degree in geography from the University of New Mexico. He has written and provided photographs for several books, including Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza and the award-winning Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico’s National Preserve. He also splashed around in many an acequia as a child.