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Acequias-The Way of the Water

By Estevan Arellano

In terms of water, Ibn Bassal, writing in 1075, identified four sources of water: 1) water from rivers that is then channeled into a network of acequias, 2) water from norias, anora in Arabic, or wells, 3) spring water and 4) rainfall. And the “water way” described by Ibn Luyun in his 1348 book is nothing more than an acequia, which is Arabic word for “water canal,” and there is nothing more coveted in a property than to have the acequia run close to the house. It has a soothing effect and it provides for a very tranquil sleep. Here in northern New Mexico such a “water way” is also used to delineate property boundaries, and such acequias are known as linderos or cequiecitas menores, (to differentiate from the acequia madres or mother ditch). From them run the brazos, and from them the ramos, and eventually all the water comes together at the desagüe (outlet) in order to move the water to the next parciante (water rights owner) or to the river. The acequia system resembles the human body and how the blood moves through the veins, arteries and capillaries. A desagüe is also an emergency outlet at the onset of the acequia, near the presa, used to clean the acequia of unwanted silt or to let the water into the river when the arroyos run or during the spring runoff; or if there is a break in the acequia and the water needs to be diverted back to the river.

One of the most misused terms in understanding an acequia is sangria (bloodletting; drainage), which a lot of people, but mostly those born outside the acequia culture, confuse with a small cequiecita. A sangria is indeed a small ditch, but it is used to drain a ciénaga, or marsh land, in order to use that piece of land for cultivation. And like a lot of the concepts pertaining to acequias, this one is also derived from the human body. When a person smashes a finger, or has a tumor, that needs to be drained to relieve the pain one sangrars (drains) the injury. The same is done with a piece of land that has too much water; it's drained by using what is known as a sangria.

Briefly, the anatomy of an acequia madre system consists of a presa, or azud (al-sudd), then a desagüe (outlet) about 200 feet from the presa. A presa is a diversion dam, which diverts the water from the river to the acequia madre. Where the water is diverted from the river it is known as the toma, or “place” where the water is taken from, whereas the structure that diverts the water is the presa. Usually, there is another desagüe, another 200 feet from the first desagüe. The reason for the second desagüe is, for in case there is a lot of water in the river, like when the arroyos run in the summer or during the spring runoff, the water can be regulated. Some acequias have a third desague about a quarter mile from the second, again for an emergency, but it is hardly ever used. Usually after an arroyo, if it happens to run into the acequia, like they do in many acequias, another desagüe is needed to clean the acequia of silt. On the acequia madre the parciantes then install their compuertas or regaderas (head gates) to get the water to their property. If a property does not border the acequia (no colinda), then an acequia menor also called a lindero (lateral), brings the water from the acequia madre to the property of the parciante. These acequias menores also known as acequias secundarias or secondary ditches do not fall under the jurisdiction of the comisión and mayordomo of the acequia madre. Once the water enters the parciante's property, from there it is spread out via brazos which take the water to the different bancales, also known as ancones (terraces), or melgas, then further broken down to irrigate the eras, through smaller cequiecitas called ramos and finally hijuelas or carreritas.

The person in charge of the water in the Rio Arriba bioregion is known as the mayordomo, and he is either appointed by the three comisionados, (commissioners), or elected along with the comisionados by the parciantes. Either way he is under the direction of the comisión. In earlier times he was known as the cequiero (sahib al-saqiya or zabacequiero), he is the one who divides the water, for he acts as the “barmaid,” making sure everyone has water. Not much is known of this person from Moorish sources, but more so from Christian documents, such as this one from 13th century Aragon: “. . . D'aquel qui guarda el agua o la cequia, qui es clamado cavacequia. . . “ (The one who takes care of the water who is called a ).

The mayordomo is always referred to as one who is “digno de confianza” (worthy of being trusted), “el que es fiel” (he who is faithful), or “el fiel del agua” (faithful with the water). In the hispano-musumayordomolman world, as well as in the Indo-hispano world, the concept of water is that it is a “don divino” (divine right), which means it is nobody's property but belongs to all, and that it ought to be divided equally among those who need it.

Water is always divided based on the amount of land in each acequia, then based on the number of peones (allotments or shares) each parciante has under that particular acequia, and based on the amount of water in the river. The amount of water in a river is measured in surcos. And here is where the old concepts of measuring water come into place. One of the most used concepts relating to acequia culture is sulco, or surco. In northern New Mexico a surco de agua is the amount of water that can flow through the buje, or opening in the center of a cartwheel in a carreta (cart) though this measurement has changed over time as the land has been divided or sold the same equation is no longer sustainable. At times parciantes try to apportion more peones than they have by subdividing the land into more pieces of land than water rights, for example, when a parciante attempts to divide a four acre plot into four one acre plots when they have only half a peon. In reality, the land can only be divided into two, two acres plots, so that each parcel of land will have at least one-quarter peon. Dividing land into smaller portions than one-quarter peon would turn into a nightmare for the mayordomo and comisión to manage.

The repartimiento de agua is based on the Moorish concept of equidad, which comes from the Qur'an. This concept, regardless of the amount of water in the river, is based on equality and the number of acres under cultivation. It is based on custom and tradition and is always passed down orally, not in written form. The Tribunal de Agua in Valencia has met every Thursday on the steps of the cathedral of that city for over a thousand years and none of their decisions have ever been written down. In Murcia they have a similar entity called the Consejo de Hombres Buenos, the Council of Good Men. In the Río Embudo, community members follow a similar practice, though it has no formal name, and functions mostly in times of drought during the repartimiento. When the repartimiento goes into effect, the water in the river is first divided by the number of acequias (in the Río Embudo 8 acequias), then the water in each acequia is divided by the number of acres based on the number of peones, or shares, for example, in the Acequia Junta y Ciénaga there are approximately 80 acres under irrigation with 80 quarter-peones (shares) and at present 32 parciantes (water rights owners), with some having only one-quarter peon (or share) and others up to two peones (or 8 shares).

In years of drought, the water, once apportioned by surcos in the river, is divided into filas (or hilas, hilos here in northern New Mexico). These filas, or hilos are known as tandas or turnos, here called papelitos (a paper that tell the water rights owner when to irrigate and for how long, which can be at noon or at midnight) and they are based on the amount of land, which should correspond to the number of peones, and ideally to the number of acres. In times of extreme drought the water “se jaricaba,” that is, several hilos of water were grouped into one so that there would be enough water to irrigate, as was done in 2002 in the Embudo Valley; only one acequia is filled at a time and each is given only half the allotted time, in this case one hour per peon but with a full flow of water. A hilo de agua traditionally corresponded to one hour of water use. The problem today is that the big acequias often lose irrigation time because the division is not done equally; the peones in each acequia do not necessarily represent the same amount of land (in terms of acreage) in every acequia. When the water is divided by the upper and lower acequias, the upper three days and the lower four days, there may again be a disparity in acreage so that the smaller acequias get more watering time per peon. When several hilos “se jaricaban,” or were combined, they were called “lonjas,” (though usually a thick and wide piece of meat; here it refers to bigger flow of water); therefore several hilos were combined into a “lonja” in order to irrigate more efficiently.

In times when there is plenty of water, no one seems to care about measuring the water and how much water an acequia uses, though with water adjudication now a reality, sooner than later water will be quantified. But in times of drought, like in the 1950s and in 2002, acequias have had to fall back on the ancient tradition of adhering to the repartimiento de agua, or the sharing of water, based on “la palabra del hombre” (the oral word) and equality. When the repartimiento was in force and for centuries this system has worked, but during the summer of 2002 some of the newcomers to the valley didn't want to follow the custom and tradition, and how long it will continue, no one knows.

The elders, the viejitos talk about “la sabiduria del agua,” (the inherent knowledge of water) and the “juicio de la tierra” (the wisdom of the earth) - concepts that came through the Moors to the nuevomexicanos. Acequia culture, the keeper of environmental ethics and philosophy, knowledge and wisdom is rapidly disappearing. Arab, Spanish, and Native customs and traditions are being supplanted by English Common Law and a capitalist system that give short shrift to concepts like digno de confianza, el que es fiel, el fiel del agua, and la palabra del hombre .

The concept of filo de agua, or hilo, like surco are intrinsic and inviolate within acequia culture and though the terms may mean something slightly different to everyone, somehow everyone knows what they mean. Huertas de chile are usually watered with a hilo de agua since you want the water to penetrate deeply to the roots, and not simply get to the end of the row, before moving the water to the next row. In terms of water conservation, irrigating with a hilo de agua is equivalent to drip irrigation promoted by proponents of sustainable agriculture. The former requires wisdom of the land, coupled with the knowledge of water, while the latter requires large investments of capital. The concept of “hilo de agua, (“thread,” a small quantity of water), is an Islamic concept that some scholars say comes directly from the Qur'an. But that concept, one of water conservation, was adhered to by my father when irrigating his “huerta de chile.” Because water is so heavy, if a lot of water is used to irrigate, the soil will get compacted, and if watered too often, the plants will turn yellow and not grow. One has to wait to water until the plants “piden agua” (ask for water), which is when the leaves start to wilt. And gardens should always be watered very early in the morning or in late afternoon, but never during the heat of the day. This is something recommended by the Arab agriculturalists, Gabriel Alonso de Herrera in his classic 1513 Obra de Agricultura, and the viejitos of northern New Mexico. The only time that a garden is watered during the heat of the day is during the repartimiento de agua, when a parciante is given a papelito. But that’s because in northern New Mexico the concept of alberca, or pool, to collect the water to use at more appropriate times has all but disappeared.

Two other very important concepts, in terms of the philosophy of the sharing of water are sobrante (which is the excess water) and auxilio (which is sharing, or coming to the rescue of those who don't have enough water). Usually when a new piece of land was exploited, it was watered with the sobrante from an already established acequia. Again in the Embudo Valley, the farmland in la Naza, is watered with the sobrante from the Acequia Junta y Ciénaga. But the sobrante can also be applied to in times of drought, when there might be more than enough water for one or two acequias that might have the water for that particular turn, or turno. If after two acequias are surtidas (or full to capacity) then the excess water is known as the sobrante and the next acequia in line to get the water can capitalize on this water. Once the water enters the acequia then it is up to the mayordomo to follow the turnos established in terms of irrigating with that sobrante. Meanwhile, an auxilio is when a certain acequia doesn't have water, and the gardens are drying up, then the comisión from that particular acequia can petition the comisión of the acequia that has water for an auxilio (usually a one time help), to let them have some water to save their gardens. The water that is shared in times of need (auxilio) is not a sobrante, or excess water, though New Mexico law does not recognize sobrante since the water is already over appropriated. If an acequia has plenty of water, instead of desaguando the water into the river at the end of that acequia, the water has to be allowed to run into the other acequia so it can be used, though first rights always belong to the upper acequia, as in the case of the Acequia Junta y Ciénaga and the Acequia de la Naza, which are independent of each other, with separate comisiones and mayordomos. Acequia culture is complex and difficult for many to understand but it monitors the water, the lifeblood of the community.

Sources Used:

1. Abderrahman Jah, Cherif y López Gómez, Margarita, El Enigma del Agua en al-Andalus, Lunwerg Editores, 1994.
2. Barrionuevo, Lorenzo Cara y Malpica Cuello, Antonio, Editores, Agricultura y Regadio en Al-Andaluz: II Coloquio Historia y Medio Físico, Instituto de Estudios Almerienses, 1995.
3. Bassal, Ibn, Libro de Agricultura, 1075; Translated by José María Millás Vallicrosa; Edición Facsímil, Estudio preliminar por Expiración García Sánchez, Escuela de Estudios Arabes (CSIC), Granada y J. Esteban Hernández Bermejo, Jardín Botánico, Córdoba, 1995.
4. Covarrubias Orozco, Sebastián de, Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana or Española, 1611, Edición de Felipe C. R. Maldonado revisada por Manuel Camarero, Segunda Edición Corregida, Nueva Biblioteca de Erudición y Critíca, Editorial Castalia, S.A. 1995.
5. Luyun, Ibn, Tratado de Agricultura, Translated by Joaquina Eguaras Ibañez, Patronato de la Alhambra y Generalife, 1988.
6. Malpica Cuello, Antonio, El Agua en la Agricultura de al-Andalus, Lunwerg Editores, 1995.
7. Trillo San José, Carmen, Agua, Tierra y Hombres en Al-Andalus, La Dimensión Agrícola del Mundo Nazarí, Ajbar Colección de Historia, 2004.
8. Personal observations based on oral histories over the past 35 years and also as a practitioner of traditional agriculture and acequia irrigation within the Merced del Embudo de Nuestro Señor San Antonio in the Embudo Watershed. Writer is currently writing on two books dealing with acequias and traditional agriculture.