How an ancient irrigation method makes sustainable life possible in the U.S. Southwest

Time-proven acequia irrigation systems already in use in New Mexico make it possible for people to thrive in arid regions.

SOURCEIndependent Media Institute
Water works: The name acequia is derived from the Arabic word for irrigation canal: al-Sāqiyah. In Spain’s Granada, the magnificent late 13th, early 14th century Moorish Patio de la Acequia is part of the Alhambra complex and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Photo credit: Ajay Suresh/Wikimedia)

Here in the U.S. Southwest, we are trapped between the extremes of a decades-long megadrought and sudden violent flooding. In New Mexico, the feverish heat started far too early: on June 14, 2021, Albuquerque broke a heat record with a temperature of 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, the monsoons arrived, but they didn’t bring much relief; the earth was already scorched, baked hard by the sun and high temperatures. In this region, July and August are usually the wettest months of the year. But the desperately needed rains hit a soil that was extensively compacted and no longer permeable. Much of the water ran off in forceful flash floods. On July 21, it swept three people away in the state’s largest city. They were relaxing on the side of a man-made urban arroyo (channel to contain rushing water) in Albuquerque when the deluge after a sudden storm seized them. They drowned. The population has long been warned to avoid arroyos.

In the midst of unsettling weather events like these, it is good to look at something that works in the Southwest: the homegrown water management acequias. The ancient acequia irrigation system—a “community-controlled irrigation system”—has proven to be a lifeline for small-scale farmers in the Southwest. The new Spanish arrivals introduced this system to the Americas. Now, this time-tested, ecologically sound, and culturally significant water democracy of the acequias and the small-scale farmers who depend on this irrigation system for their survival in the arid regions of the Southwest are both under assault in the face of modern development in the region.

Acequia irrigation systems are an ancient invention, going back to at least the 1st century B.C. They make it possible for people to survive and thrive in the arid regions of the world, and even in deserts. This irrigation system can be found in India, China, Central and Southeast Asia, and North Africa. The Muslims “who invaded Spain in the 8th century” introduced their water management knowledge to the country, and centuries later the new Spanish arrivals introduced this irrigation system to the Americas, where they encountered various irrigation techniques, including the techniques used by Native Americans north of the Rio Grande. The name acequia is derived from the Arabic word for irrigation canal: al-Sāqiyah.

The acequia method appears to be simple, but it is, in fact, quite sophisticated. A superb engineering feat, it works with the help of “gravity-fed ditches” that utilize the lay of the land and depend on various other factors such as season changes and the melting of the snow. The flow and the allocation of the water to individual fields have to be just right to be beneficial; otherwise, they can lead to danger and potential pitfalls: water stagnation, accumulation of salts and pollutants, silt deposits, and more. However, the acequia system is adaptive and beneficial for the environment. The earthen ditches enhance water seepage into the soil, refill the aquifer, create lush narrow wetlands, and boost biodiversity. Data collected in a study of acequias by Sam Fernald, a professor of watershed management and director of the Water Resources Research Institute at New Mexico State University (NMSU), and his fellow researchers found that “only 7 percent of the water diverted from the Rio Grande into a north-central New Mexico acequia irrigation system [was] lost to evapotranspiration,” according to Farm Progress. By intricate interactions, this system allows for the rest of the precious water to return to the river and/or the aquifer.

The associations that manage acequia make great stewards of the land thanks to what they have learned from their long experience about how to get by during recurring droughts. There are rules that need to be followed in times of scarcity. Acequias tend to cooperate with nature and have evolved with time after being tweaked and tinkered with over many generations. And what’s more, the Spanish arrivals who built this canal network also created a stable social institution for the entire community: They established the first self-organized local democracy developed by European newcomers in North America. Then, in 1848, after the Southwest became part of the United States, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American war, led to acceptance of the former legal status that Mexicans had under Spain and granted them individual water rights as constitutional rights.

On December 21, 2020, NMSU presented the results of a 10-year study of acequia systems titled “Acequia Water Systems Linking Culture and Nature: Integrated Analysis of Community Resilience to Climate and Land Use Changes.” Sam Fernald was the principal investigator of the interdisciplinary project, which involved 10 different fields ranging from hydrology to agricultural economics to global culture and society. It was funded by a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation and studied the many facets of acequia systems. Scientists from the Sandia National Laboratories worked on putting all the data of the research together in models that will support ongoing investigations.

In New Mexico, the inhabitants of a village or settlement with membership to an acequia association are known as parciantes. They know in their bones that el agua es la vida (water is life), and they value every drop. They hold the use rights, but do not own the water itself—apparently one cannot own nature. With one farmer, one vote, they elect a mayordomo (or ditch boss) who is in charge of acequia management and governance. Each spring, all able-bodied men perform the essential hard work of cleaning and fixing the unlined channels of the water distribution network. The entire concept is based on mutual aid, shared labor, collective cooperation, and sacrifice in times of scarcity (drought), when water allocations are reduced for all members.

The New Mexico Acequia Commission estimates that currently there are about 700 acequias in the state with additional systems operating in southern Colorado. Most are small-scale acequias. Conflict about water was and still remains intense and complex in the entire region. Growing populations, urban sprawl, aggressive development, and extractive industries want more water. Small-scale farmers and the acequia systems are under assault. The political and legal maneuvers employed to obtain water use rights are extremely complicated. One example of this is the big-gun strategies that were used to get access to the water supply and get all the legal and environmental approvals required for building a brand-new city called Santolina, which is meant to accommodate 100,000 people in the middle of the waterless desert west of Albuquerque. The project lingers on. The Guardian published a story in 2015 with the headline, “Why does Barclays want to build a city in the middle of the New Mexico desert?” Why indeed. Yet the British bank Barclays bought the acreage, part of the Atrisco Land Grant, in a foreclosure transaction from the former failed developer SunCal to build a “38,000-home mega-development.”

When economic growth and progress are on the menu, how can the centuries-old oasis culture of the Southwest, with its small agricultural producers, prevail? Are acequia systems old-fashioned? Are they no longer relevant? Is the wish to preserve them impractical nostalgia?

Of course, the promoters of growth and development also depend on water. They want more and more when there is less and less. Some decades ago, manipulated photos of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, showed that it was sitting on an underground lake, nicknamed Lake Superior. But this aquifer was an illusion: wishful thinking. There was far less water underground, it was pumped out too fast, and users depleted it rapidly.

Thankfully, the city came to its senses. From 1994 to 2018, the Albuquerque metro area reduced water use per capita from 252 gallons per day to 125 gallons. The consumption was down to 121 gallons per capita per day in 2019 (although it crept up again during the pandemic in 2020). To achieve the 2019 decrease in water use, residents reduced consumption of water to maintain their lawns and xeriscaped their gardens, among other adaptations. Albuquerque has earned its reputation as “one of the best water conservation cities in the West.”

That’s admirable, but there is more that can be done. Scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and elsewhere fear that the Western United States is advancing toward a “megadrought” situation as severe as anything known since prehistory. Our climate is warming, and the mountain snowpacks that feed and replenish our rivers are decreasing every year.

Considering this, the water democracy of the acequias makes a lot of sense. The system works. It has shown staying power and sustainability for centuries. The farmers who participate may have just a few acres of land, and by some measurements, they could be classified as poor; but in rich countries, this is called “relative poverty.” An acequia farmer in Albuquerque’s still semi-rural South Valley may hold a job in the city and also take care of his or her small farm. These farmers are likely to own their own homes, as do 80 percent of the long-established Hispanics who live there. Perhaps the farmers don’t have much, but they have autonomy, dignity, and self-sufficiency.

And these farmers can trace back historic roots to this place, as their family might have farmed the same modest parcel of terra firma since the 1600s. But developments like Santolina would cover this land with concrete and make these farmers homeless. The trends are in favor of the acequias. During the pandemic, the global food supply chains were shaken and disrupted. Shoppers in North America, 65 percent of those surveyed in the U.S. and 82 percent in Canada, said they would be more likely to purchase locally produced food. For instance, it makes very little sense to grow lettuce or spinach on the West Coast and ship it for consumption to the East Coast, thousands of miles away. This not only leaves a big carbon footprint but also raises questions about the freshness of these vegetables despite the cooling systems installed in the trucks transporting them.

To bypass Big Ag, it is crucial for small-scale farmers to grow value-added crops that are better-tasting, more nutritious, environmentally sound, and income-friendly for the producer: the emphasis should be on quality, not quantity. All over the world, there is much ongoing imaginative innovation, scientific research, and technical know-how that can be studied and perhaps adapted. What is the Netherlands or Singapore doing with regard to small-scale urban farming? How are growers in the Sonoran Desert able to sustain their agricultural needs? The big tasks required to repair and preserve our planet can overpower the mind. So perhaps setting our own local house in order is a good starting point. In this context, the Southwest is fortunate to already have a model for water democracy in the acequias. Something so viable deserves respect and support.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.


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