We call it acequia madre, and it had a profound impact on New Mexico’s history and our heritage. This is the story
of the humble irrigation ditch.Ever since the last Ice Age, water has been in short supply in the Southwest. Hunter/gatherers congregated around evaporating glacial lakes. Some of the more ingenious among them began to cultivate corn, which may have migrated north with people from Central America.
Archaic people, from 2000 BCE to 500 CE, learned to farm, domesticating corn, beans, and squash, which provide a nearly complete human diet. As a result of better nutrition, population increased, and people relied more on their cultivated crops as game became scarce. The transition from hunter/gatherer to farmer was complete.
Visit Chaco Canyon and you’ll see rudimentary irrigation. There are dams across arroyos to retain runoff from summer rains. There are contoured terraces on alluvial fans and waffle gardens. (They didn’t grow waffles, but
created waffle-like berms to focus water on plants.) Mostly, they practiced dry-land farming, relying on precipitation. They planted lots of fields to ensure some got enough water to bring corps to harvest.
After Chaco culture collapsed, people eventually migrated to the tributaries along the Rio Grande, a much more reliable water source. Here they created diversions to move water from streams onto their fields or they carried water in ollas (pots) and dipped it onto plants.
When the Spanish arrived, they brought ideas and technologies dating to Moorish times. To survive in the high Southwestern desert, they had to rely on irrigation and continued hydrologic techniques imported with the Old World, along with the vocabulary of the Moors: atarque, a diversion dam, compertas, head gates, and zansas, irrigation duties.
“While village acequiasrepresent the first direct diversion of the Rio Grande basin’s surface water,” write Fred Phillips, Emlen Hall, and Mary Black, authors of Reining in the Rio Grande , “they also carried rich communal and religious meaning, which emphasized healthy respect for the natural world and limited human power to control it.”
They said of water “agua es la sangre de la tierra,” earth’s blood, and the acequias they dug were the means by which settlers diverted and applied water to farms so crops flourished and people survived.
Now, acequias are a clever solution to irrigation. They were dug parallel to the river, not the Rio Grande — its flow was far too powerful for Spanish settlers to control — but tributary streams and rivers. Like the river, acequias depended on gravity to work. From where water entered the ditch until it returned to the river, it had to run downhill or follow the fall line of the land. The river did the same thing. The clever part was to design
acequias so they fell at a lower rate than the river, eventually placing their water above that of the river.
Farmers shifted acequias away from the river until they ran at some distance from, though still parallel to, the river. Then, when diversion gates were opened, water streamed downhill, moistening tilled land across which it ran. When crops were thoroughly wet, water exited fields in a drain that emptied back into its original source.
“Between 1590 and 1846,” Phillips, Hall, and Black write, “Hispanic settlers built 400 community irrigation ditches on upper Rio Grande tributaries that irrigated 55,000 acres, an average of about 130 acres per acequia
, diverted into tracts no larger than 10 acres.” A hundred more were constructed in the middle Rio Grande region. Farming at that time did not extend much beyond Socorro along the lower Rio Grande. Presumably there were some acequias there also.
With communally owned acequias came community obligations. In spring, people gathered to clean and deepen ditches. Summer storms meant repairing damage from large pulses of water or floods. When fall arrived, people removed fences dividing individual fields and opening land to communal grazing.
There was also the obligation to use water economically. Acequia members elected a mayordomo or governor to control distribution and enforce rules. There was the rule ofpor necesidad— by necessity. Garden plots and orchards, which could not be moved, got water before pasture or annual crops, which could be replaced. There was also the rule of por tanda , meaning members took turns using a diminished supply after snow had melted and flowed
past. Finally, there was the rule of por derecho, or by relative rights. Some acequia members had a greater and often older right to water than others. Senior right holders had precedence over junior right holders.
This last rule, por derecho, eventually became a source of conflict in modern allocation of water. It formed the foundation of water right law that continues to confound us to this day.
People were conscientious about how they used water. The greatest charge against them was to be labeled la dejo suelto, meaning users let precious water loose without exercising control over it. It was the sin of vergüenza
or shamelessness. And nobody wanted that charge hanging around their necks.
Hispanic and Pueblo people alike shared acequias but their approach to irrigation was quite different. Spanish owned their plots and kept or sold their harvest. The pueblo itself owned the land and assigned parcels to different farmers, who were required to share the bounty of their harvest with the entire community. For both, farming was a subsistence affair.
Acequias were the focus of religious life — the water was, after all, la sangre de la tierra. They were the central activity of communal life and crucial for people’s survival in high-desert villages. Despite the changes
that were soon to come, people maintained a powerful, spiritual attachment to them and to their land.
Then the Anglo-Americans arrived. When Gen. Stephen Kearney left Santa Fe for California in his quest to win the Mexican-American War, he left behind “a new national sovereign, a small force, and a profound ignorance of the irrigation-based culture of the Rio Grande basin.”
And he wasn’t alone. Anglos who followed were driven by the zealous fervor of Manifest Destiny, a philosophy founded on exploitation of natural resources thought to have been underutilized by Hispanic and Pueblo people from their ignorance and indifference. They scorned the subsistence economies of existing Hispanic villagers who had lived on the land for a century and a half and Puebloans who’dbeen there more than four centuries.
Anglos looked at the land, but never saw it. Instead, they saw timber, gold, silver and minerals, and grass for cattle. Susan J. Tweit, in her book Barren, Wild, and Worthless: Living in the Chihuahuan Desert,writes, “Between 1882 and 1884, sixty thousand cattle were moved into Socorro County alone, an area that now supports much less than one-tenth that number. High cattle prices and the apparent high productivity of the desert grasslands encouraged ranchers to graze wildly optimistic numbers of livestock. The grass seemed endless, the profits sure.”
Conservative Hispanic and Pueblo people, Phillips, Hall, and Black write, “were now confronted with an alien society that had an unshakable conviction in divine destiny and a willingness to take whatever risks and make whatever changes necessary to ensure that destiny would be realized.” They would make the desert bloom.
Much of the West was too arid to produce crops— a limitation Anglos overcame simply by ignoring climate and farming anyway. People seemed to believe the act of plowing the land would, mysteriously, increase rainfall. We all know what happened on the Great Plains in the 1930s as the result of this unwillingness to see the land.
What Anglos did in New Mexico changed not only people’s lives but also the landscape and rivers in ways no one could have imagined. Our trio of authors write, “Many (changes) were detrimental and irreversible and we are still attempting to deal with them to this day.”
The year 1846 brought a sea change to New Mexico, a strange term to use about the desert. Following that year, the rural world of the Hispanic and Puebloan began to change. The changes that came altered and, in come cases, obliterated the life they had known for centuries.
What happened after the United States took control of New Mexico and the Rio Grande is another story, with enough twists and turns to make the carnival Wild Mouse ride seem like a glide along a straight track.