by Elle Seybold
on Saturday, January 30th, 2021 at 11:43am.
New Mexico has a long and fascinating history, much of which has been forgotten. The story of the acequias is a part of the history that many of New Mexico’s modern inhabitants are unaware of yet remains a vital part of New Mexican life. In New Mexico, the importance of water, cannot be overstated. As they say here, la agua es la vida.
Having grown up in on a rural ranch property, the acequia has always been a part of my life. Last year I became involved in the management of our acequias and was appointed a Commissioner for the Acequia de Santa Cruz. I couldn’t be more honoured and look forward to helping manage our waters. It is a first step in what I hope will be a storied career in community service and community leadership. That said, I want to share with you a glimpse into this ancient tradition and the oldest political organization in the United States.
Acequias, or communal irrigation systems, evolved over 10,000 years in the deserts of the Middle East and were introduced into southern Spain by the Moors during their nearly 800-year occupation. The term acequia, derives from the Arabic term as-saqiya (“that which gives water”). In the American Southwest, the Pueblo Indians practiced various types of water harvesting strategies including floodwater farming and the use of irrigation ditches. When the Spanish arrived in the early 1500’s they combined their water techniques with indigenous practices, resulting in the innovative and unique system of acequias present throughout the state today.
Acequias included specific governance over water distribution, water scarcity plans, and all other matters pertaining to what was viewed as a communal resource. The mayordomo, or watermaster, of the acequia made decisions about water distribution among community members, with the consent and advice of the acequia members (called parciantes).
This communal system of irrigating was a response to the scarcity of water in arid regions and was key to the survival of agricultural communities. In many instances, the acequia governance system was also used to settle other community conflicts, especially in areas like New Mexico, located far from the seat of government in Mexico City.
In the spring, every able-bodied male was required to show up on the appointed day to clean and repair the acequia madre, the mother ditch, from which each individual plot received irrigation water. Once the main irrigation canal was repaired and water began flowing, the mayordomo monitored the use of water for irrigation by each parciante. Each parciante was assigned a specific time each week to irrigate his personal field. If an irrigator used water without the mayordomo’s permission, he was severely punished by having water withheld from his fields. If the acequia madre was breached during the year, the mayordomo called on every parciante to help repair it.
Shortly after the founding of Santa Fe, both the Acequia Madre (which still flows along the street that bears its name) and the Acequia de la Muralla skirting the low hills on the north were built to provide water for irrigation and the domestic needs of the community. In the early Spanish period, water for the Palace of the Governors came from two acequias that ran from the cienega, or springs, to the east. One flowed down the present Palace Avenue in front of the building; the other watered gardens in the rear. By cutting off the water from these acequias, the Indians forced the Spaniards to evacuate in the Pueblo Revolt and by the same method, de Vargas drove the Indians out in 1693.
Few recognizable traces of these acequias remain, but the Acequia Madre has never ceased to flow, and it is still governed by the old Spanish laws, with a mayordomo and three commissioners to supervise its upkeep. An annual fee is paid by all property owners along the ditch who still hold water rights, and it is their duty to help clean out the acequia in the spring, as well as to assist when further help is needed during the irrigation season.
Acequias remain an integral part of the modern urban landscape of New Mexico. I hope the next time you walk or run along their banks you will reflect on the immense history embodied in these wandering waterways.