The Acequia Systems in New Mexico from the Spanish Colonial Period to Today

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Water is the essence of life. It's something that many people take for granted, mainly those that don't live in desert areas. When you take away its abundance, acquiring it becomes the focus of any society. Such was the case during the Spanish Colonial Period in New Mexico and it continues on through to today. The water network associations are called Acequias. They have been around since pre-colonial times.

In New Mexico, the Rio Grande is the main river and source of water. Pueblo societies have formed around the river since they began using agriculture. According to Dunbar-Ortiz (2007), irrigation agriculture has been around for 2000 years. In that time it has radically modified the landscape and highly transformed land use (p.23).

Irrigation systems are complex and many factors are necessary for their success. In order to build them, cooperative construction and planning is required. After they are built, regular maintenance is required.

This, coupled with the fact that the several villages all use the same canal, makes cooperation a necessary exercise.

According to lecture notes, the pueblos created complex irrigation systems over 60 years before the Spanish arrived. Both the pueblos and the Spanish had irrigation systems, though they view the particulars of the systems in slightly different manners. To the pueblos, water is sacred and male in spirit. To the Spanish, water is also sacred, but female in spirit, while land is male. The two groups syncretized their beliefs and knowledge of irrigation to come up with the Acequias systems.

Spanish colonial law set up the basic concepts for regulating the canals, but the system was actually controlled by old customs, with very few actual laws. Many of the customary practices were based on the "Islamic Law of Thirst." This law states that even if you are enemies, if you meet up at a watering hole in the desert, you must set aside your differences and give each other equal access to the water. All must drink.

The in class-lecture stated that there are principal functions & features of Acequias. These are as follows: Each irrigator with water rights on one canal was to receive water in proportion to the amount of land irrigated. The maintenance costs were distributed in proportion to the amount of water used and paid for in labor or produce. The administration of the canals was taken care of by appointed or elected officials who were respected members of the community. The main administrator is called the Mayordomo and he has a large amount of power to regulate water among the Parciantes (people with water rights).

Dunbar-Ortiz (2007) states that "Intensive irrigation undoubtedly brought about a particular orientation of the Rio Grande Pueblos. The continuing day-to-day tasks necessary for hydraulic agriculture rendered clan organization alone inefficient." (p.23) This shows that communities had to cooperate and develop their systems of water right management in order to keep everyone watered, fed, and happy.

In Spanish culture, family is very important in the passing down of wealth and water. According to the lecture, the eldest male has the right of leadership and is known as the Primogeniture. He is in charge of splitting up water access and land throughout the family as well as providing the security for the family. The Pueblos, on the other hand, developed non-familial associations. This, according to Dunbar-Ortiz, was "remarkably democratic" in "mobilizing a large free labor force for production." (p.23)Both systems considered celebration and sacrificial ceremonies important in maintaining the flow of water and these are still carried out today. But it wasn't always all about cooperation. Inherent in any situation where sharing is necessary, but supplies, such as water, are scarce is the possibility for disruption. Some of the conflicts lie between upstream verses downstream use, water hogging, and outright stealing.

These problems have been around since the Acequias began and are still around today. Another of the problems parciantes face today are the Water Conservancy Groups. These collectives buy up water rights from multiple small farmers and ranchers in order to consolidate them and, supposedly, save water. But, they have ended up doing just the opposite. Larger corporations are the only ones that can afford the water anymore and they build large-scale farms and ranches where, before there were several small farms and ranches. This ends up using much more water in the end and pushes out the small farmer.

Thought the Acequia system was built and founded on beautiful principles of sharing that which is necessary to live, it has, sadly, become outdated and almost impossible to maintain. Society has grown too large to stick with the old ways of water rights being passed down through family and maintained by cooperation with your neighbors. Society just doesn't work that way anymore. It's growing too quickly, corporations are too greedy, and the Acequias are going to suffer and, most likely, die out.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. 2007. Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.