A Community Perspective on the Albuquerque District's Acequia Rehabilitation Program
September 3, 2013
SANTA ROSA, N.M., -- From the edge of the cliff, the irrigated bottomlands descend gradually to the banks of the Pecos River downstream of Santa Rosa, N.M. Although it has not rained in days, the crops grow lushly, watered regularly from the acequia or irrigation ditch that traces the base of the cliff.
Historically, this region was only beginning to be settled when the area was transferred by Mexico to the United States in 1848. Consequently, the acequias here are relatively young by New Mexico standards: the main ditches (Labadie, East Puerto de Luna (EPdL), and West Puerto de Luna (WPdL) community ditches) are mid-19th century excavations. Descendants of the first settlers still farm along the acequias.
Acequias were originally simple hand-excavated trenches, 4-5 feet wide, 3-5 feet deep, and several miles long. At the upstream end, a diversion dam (presa) directed water into the acequia; unused water returned to the river at the downstream end through a channel called a desague. Gravity flow pushed water along the ditch, and small gates were used to divert water into individual fields via side channels (sangrias) according to a schedule agreed upon by the community and enforced by the mayordomo or ditch governor. Ditch repairs and maintenance were community affairs.
Traditional acequias are porous with precious irrigation water seeping out through the earthen channel sides and bottom. Tree roots and burrowing animals undermine channel walls, and spring and summer floods often destroy diversion dams. Frequent maintenance is needed to keep an acequia in good working order.
In recent years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Albuquerque District has used its authority under the Acequia Rehabilitation Program of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986 to work with the communities, the State of New Mexico and other federal agencies to upgrade many acequias, including the WPdL, EpdL and Labadie ditches. In addition to replacing miles of open ditch with buried piping, lining ditch segments with concrete to reduce water loss, and replacing flumes at arroyo crossings, the Corps also replaced the failed WPdL diversion structure on Agua Negra Creek with a 35-foot high, 40-foot wide cement diversion dam and spillway. It also replaced the diversion structures for the EPdL and Labadie ditches.
Before undertaking recent acequia upgrades, the District conducted archaeological surveys to document the historic alignment of all three of these ditches. The archaeologists found mid-19th century General Land Office maps that show that these acequias, and the fields they water, have been in their current location since that time.
Oral history interviews were also conducted with long-term residents along the ditch or in the central community of Puerto de Luna, N.M. These conversations were tinged with nostalgia. Back in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, people who shared rights to an acequia's water would come together in labor parties to maintain the structures, a collective, back-breaking, five- or six-day period when men and boys would come together to work for the common good. The women brought water and food. Once the ditches were free of winter's debris, they would be cleaned spiritually through the limpias (cleansing) in which the community would parade a statue of San Isidro through the town, and pray for good crops and rain. Similar parades would occur on Dia de San Juan (June 24), Dia de Santiago (July 24) and Dia de Santa Ana (July 25). For the feast of Corpus Christi, the streets of town would be swept clean, lined with cedar boughs, and sprinkled with flower petals along the route that the saints would be paraded.
Throughout the summer, children would play along the ditches, and ride inner tubes down the moving water beneath the dappled shade of cottonwood trees. Apple and cherry orchards were common. Many people had large gardens and shared their produce with each other.
But long-term residents say that these traditions have been slowly fading. Despite the increased availability of irrigation water through acequia upgrades, making a living as a farmer seems increasingly difficult: everyone is so busy trying to make a living that there does not seem to be time for the relationships essential to the traditional acequia way of life.
As the population of Puerto de Luna declined over the second half of the 20th century, the sense of community and common purpose seems to have gotten lost. The liturgical round is no longer celebrated in the same way. Many long-term residents complain that as they've aged, they've had to hire someone else to manage the land because their children have moved away. Some irrigators are weekend farmers who live and work in Albuquerque, N.M., and elsewhere during the week. Absentee land ownership is common, reaching 70 to 80 percent along the EPdL. New users of ditch water don't seem to understand the traditions or the acequia way of life. Acequia maintenance can be spotty and water delivery to downstream users sometimes hindered. Fights over water seem rougher now than in the past.
Despite these problems, long-term residents feel that the acequia improvements have made water deliveries more reliable and abundant. On balance, they feel the improvements have blessed the community with more irrigation water, enabling folks to plant larger crops and make a better living off their land. And reliable water may even be helping to revitalize the community: the 2010 Census shows the population of Puerto de Luna has started to grow again.