Driving down any rural highway in northern New Mexico, you are sure to come across a valley with acequias—irrigation ditches that in some cases have existed for several centuries.
You might not even notice them, but someone with a sensitized eye would immediately spot the green ribbons of farmland, pasture, cottonwood, and willow trees. Simple in their design, acequias move water from a common source of water—a spring or a stream—through a network of ditches to replenish fields that have been carefully tended for generations. These community-based irrigation systems are central to traditions of life on the land that have sustained families in New Mexico for generations and inspired many newcomers to embrace the acequia culture.
Acequias are one of the most enduring examples of human-made commons in North America. Their roots extend back thousands of years to people living in the arid lands of present-day India and the Middle East. The word acequia is of Arabic origin meaning “bearer of water” or “that which quenches thirst.” The acequias of the present-day Southwest combine Moorish traditions with Native American irrigation and agricultural techniques. They have shaped the landscape, culture, and communities of mestizos, genizaros, and mexicanos (collectively referred to as the Indo-Hispanic people).
In the United States, acequias are unique to New Mexico and southern Colorado, although remnants can be found in other areas of the Southwest. Their resilience in this area can be explained in part by the fact that acequias continue to be vital to the spiritual and material existence of communities in the region. Thousands of families continue to derive all or part of their livelihood from ranchitos, or small-scale farms and ranches. Even more important, acequias continue because of people’s attachment to the place they live, to the miracles made possible with water, and to a cultural longing to continue ancestral practices and pass them on to future generations.
The deep cultural place that acequias (the word refers to both irrigation ditches and the community network that manages them) have in these communities can be explained to some extent by their communal roots. Generally, acequias were established as part of the community land grants under Spain and Mexico (although some were established on the same principles during the later period as a U.S. territory). Under that system, collective ownership of property was well established and fit well with way of life of land-based people. Families owned their suertes (the lots that comprise today’s small-scale farms and ranches), while the remaining lands, vegas (meadows/wetlands), and montes (mountains) were for the use of all the community. Before the advent of barbed-wire fence, families’ livestock grazed throughout the mountains and valleys as a herd under the watchful eye of a shepherd.
Acequias were a natural outgrowth of the commons worldview that water is a community resource—a belief that still underpins acequias today. The Indo-Hispanic villages faced tremendous challenges to survive in the arid environment of the Southwest. Bringing water to crops by constructing an acequia was one of the first priorities in establishing any community. Over time, these communities evolved intricate customs of distributing water based on the fundamental principle that water was essential to life and must be shared for the common good. Today, this practice, which is referred to as the repartimiento or reparto, is one of the central characteristics of the acequias. It is the day-to-day embodiment of the belief that water is life. It is also a living example of a community-based commons.
The Struggle to Protect Acequias
This commons view of land and water was challenged by the westward expansion of the United States, which culminated in the 1848 U.S. war against Mexico. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the agreement between the United States and Mexico that marked the end of the war, guaranteed the rights of the Mexicans who remained in the ceded territories (including New Mexico), the vast majority of mercedes, or common lands, were expropriated through privatization or incorporation into federally managed U.S. lands. This loss remains vivid in the collective memory of the Indo-Hispanic people of the region.
But the acequias, also communally owned, remain largely intact. The Territorial Water Code of 1850 codified the basic principles of acequia governance including the democratic election of the mayordomo (steward, or ditch manager) and the practice of sharing the water among acequias along the same stream system. However, later laws changed the nature of acequia water rights in fundamental ways.
Water law in the western United States is based on a doctrine that can be summarized as “first in time, first in right.” For acequias, this was a mixed blessing. It seemed to conflict with the commons ethic of repartimiento, but it also implied a protected status for existing acequia water rights. Fortunately acequias’ water-sharing customs are still recognized in state law.
According to acequia custom and tradition, water rights are attached to the land, not to the owner, and the right to use water depends upon maintaining good standing in the acequia by upholding responsibilities for cooperative maintenance. However, the water code and later laws explicitly defined acequia water rights as transferable. This left acequias vulnerable to absentee ownership by people with no stake in the community. This could lead to the piecemeal dismantling of communal practices needed to keep for the water system working. In the broader sense, it created the danger that rural communities would lose their water rights in a market-based system that favors water flowing to regions with greater economic power.
After New Mexico joined the union in 1912, most of the traditional acequia practices continued uninterrupted until the 1960s when acequia parciantes (irrigators and water-right owners) started being named as defendants in water-rights lawsuits filed by the state. This caused understandable fear and divisiveness in the acequias, which eventually organized themselves into regional associations to unify for common defense. These associations stood up to defend acequia water-sharing customs and prevent the forfeiture of water rights by the state due to errors in mapping—essential work that continues to this day.
Shortly afterward, acequia associations became active on another front: protesting water transfers. Pressures to shift scarce supplies of water from agriculture to suburban development began to mount in the 1980s with unprecedented population growth and urbanization in the state. Acequia associations became actively engaged in fighting the transfer of their water rights, making the case that water was vital to the survival of their communities and integral to the cultural heritage of the state. Results were mixed, but it became clear to developers and others seeking to transfer acequia water rights that communities would be vocal in their defense of their water and their way of life.
Restoring Traditions Through State Law
In the 1990s the acequias came together to form the Congreso de las Acequias, a statewide federation that represents more than five hundred local acequia systems. In recent years, acequias restored recognition of traditional acequia governance in state law and challenged the idea that water is a commodity to be bought and sold.
Our ancestors might not have imagined the extent of work necessary today just to protect the acequias. Yet because of their dedication to the principles of collective stewardship and governance, our current generation has inherited a remarkable legacy unique to the present-day Southwest. Many thousands of acequia parciantes are able to continue this rich way of life by irrigating their crops and maintaining the cultural and spiritual traditions intertwined with the acequias. But not forgotten are those who for countless generations left an imprint on the land and communities of the Southwest with their hopes, energy, prayer, laughter, and work.
Paula Garcia is the executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. This essay first appeared in Sustainable Santa Fe: A Resource Guide and was reprinted in On the Commons’ book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons.