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Campus News
WaterWise
University of New Mexico experts work to solve regional water issues
August 16, 2004

Rivera: Acequias are social institution

By Carolyn Gonzales

El Día de la Limpia, ditch cleaning day, in Peña Blanca, N.M., circa 1890. Hispanic villagers and San Felipe Indians worked side-by-side to maintain the acequia.

Before early Spanish colonists built churches in their new communities along the Rio Grande, they built an acequia. The birthplace of the community took place at the “presa,” or diversion dam. The lifeblood of the community coursed through the veins and arteries – the acequia madre and smaller canals. Directed by gravity, the water flowed, delineating boundaries and watering thirsty fields on its way back to the river.

Jose Rivera, administrator, social scientist, and professor of public administration, grew up in the acequia community of Mora, in Northern New Mexico. He is aware of the cultural, legal, social and planning issues surrounding the use of the state’s most precious resource – water.

Author of the UNM Press publication, “Acequia culture: water, land, and community in the Southwest,” Rivera has done more than research and write about acequias and their significance.He lived it.

“I worked on my grandfather’s farm. I helped irrigate and was a ditch cleaner, a ‘peon,’” he said. Limpia Day, a day set aside for ditch maintenance, was a great equalizer. “Everyone in the community – teachers, bus drivers, lawyers and farmers are out there in the springtime,” Rivera said.

“Acequias are not just a ditch; they are a social institution,” he said. “They are autonomous. They elect officers, establish rules and monitor and enforce the rules,” Rivera said.

Irrigating on schedule, like ditch cleaning, is strictly enforced. “’Thou shalt not water out of turn,’ is inviolable and is sanctioned with fines,” he said.
Rivera said approximately 1,000 acequia communities exist in New Mexico and Southern Colorado.

What has made acequias workable for centuries is that they are community based; people possess, manage and control the acequia and the water.
“New Mexico water rights are a commodity property and can be severed from the land and sold on the market,” Rivera said.

The result is community destabilization with pressure to convert farmland for other purposes.

“A sense of place is associated with acequias. The identity of the people is tied to the system. Without it, the people wonder, ‘Who are we? Where are we from?’” he said.

“Much of the water bought off acequia owners is being used for industrial, municipal and recreational use, such as golf courses,” he said, adding that agriculture represents 75 percent of New Mexico’s water use.

For the community ditch to function, the water flow and volume needs to be maintained by gravity. When water is sold, it is taken at the head gate, thereby diminishing the water and the hydraulic pressure.

“It affects all the users,” he said.

Because the ditch requires a minimum number of irrigators to maintain it, pay dues and provide ‘peones’ to clean it, the common acequias could disappear.
New Mexico’s first water code, the Kearney Water Code of 1846, valued the acequia system brought over by Spanish settlers. They picked it up from Islamics from North Africa and the Middle East who occupied Spain for seven centuries.

Just as water was a first concern of early settlers, water policies drive the future of the region.