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Meaning and Traditions of Water

A history of New Mexico vs. Aamodt and the meaning and traditions of water in New Mexico.

By Michael Miller

The issue is water. In New Mexico and throughout the West, it is precious, often scarce, and rapidly becoming the key to economic and financial success for many communities.

To many Nuevo Mexicanos, water is much more. It is the center of a unique way of life founded on centuries of tradition, dependence on sustainable agriculture, with a physical and spiritual attachment to the land. For hundreds of residents of the Pojoaque Valley, north of Santa Fe, water represents a landmark court case, a seemingly endless legal battle, and possibly a long-awaited settlement that has lasted over 43 years.

On April 20, 1966, New Mexico State Engineer, Steve Reynolds, filed suit against those individuals who claimed water rights in the Pojoaque basin.  Federal law, which authorized the San Juan-Chama Project and the construction of the Nambe Pueblo Reservoir, required that all water rights be formally resolved.  According to Reynolds this was done, "in order to administer the water that was, in effect, co-mingling, it was necessary to know the rights to the use of the Rio Grande waters that arise in the Nambe‑Pojoaque stream system." Because of this action by the Office of the State Engineer, the United States Department of Justice intervened on behalf of the Pueblos of San Ildefonso, Nambe, Pojoaque, and Tesuque. Special master, Edward Yudin, an Albuquerque attorney was appointed to oversee the proceedings. The case was assigned the official title of New Mexico vs. Aamodt because it was named after retired Los Alamos physicist R. Lee Aamodt. A resident of Jaconita, Mr. Aamodt was accustomed to being first on alphabetical lists and he was not surprised 17 years ago when the water rights case took his name. Ironically, the name Aamodt means “rivers meeting” in Norwegian which is a rough equivalent of the Tewa term, Pojoaque.  

Journals and documents from the Spanish explorers often reported on the irrigation works observed among the Pueblo people of the Rio Grande Valley. The use of water irrigation systems to support agriculture in New Mexico began with the Ancestral Puebloans. This ancient culture was centered on Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.  These prehistoric people built communities for long-term occupation. Their indigenous technologies included solar-heated pit houses and kivas, cisterns for domestic water storage, and community outdoor hearths and ovens. They farmed on contour terraces, grid-bordered gardens, and canyon floors and eventually developed a sophisticated and water efficient system. That system depended on natural precipitation and runoff that the Puebloans captured, stored, and distributed to their crops via intricate systems of canals, diversion dams and head gates.   

When these settlements were abandoned around 1100 AD, this unique agricultural technology did not disappear but was passed on to modern Pueblo cultures who occupied the Rio Grande basin and its tributaries. The agricultural and irrigation practices begun by the Ancestral Puebloans evolved into even more efficient methods of soil and water conservation. 

Pueblo agriculturalists invested an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources to construct a network of water harvesting and conservation systems that were very innovative and ingenious. These remarkable conservation accomplishments and engineering techniques included dense coverage of low mesas by installation of gravel mulched fields, complexes of rock-bordered rectangular grids and cobble-step terraces on high mesas, stone-lined ditches to channel water from one depression to another, and placement of rock alignments as check dams to designated planting areas within the irrigated floodplain. 

When the Spanish arrived in Nuevo Mexico, they were amazed to find these remarkable agricultural systems. Unlike the Ancestral Puebloans and the Pueblo farmers, the Spanish-Mexican agriculturalists did not limit their settlements to areas dependent on captured runoff and consistent rainfall. Spanish colonization and the establishment of ranchos and land grant settlements required the use of much larger tracts of land requiring the colonists to engineer much larger diversions and water delivery systems from the Rio Grande, the Rio Chama, the Rio Pecos and their tributaries. These systems came to be known as acequias (a word derived from the Arabs, which means community ditch). If a ditch had been dug by the Pueblos in earlier times and abandoned, the Spanish colonists reopened it and made improvements. Spanish law prohibited encroachment on Indian ditches that were still in use. Although this law was broken on occasion, Spanish farmers and ranchers for the most part looked for locations where irrigation works could be constructed for new settlements and did not interfere with existing Pueblo systems. 

These new irrigation systems were often sophisticated engineering projects that required unique skills and calculations. Using wooden hand tools the Nuevo Mexicano parciante (a member of the acequia association) would dig ditches and laterals off both banks of the river from the diversion dam using gravity to direct the water to his fields and pastures. Without the benefit of modern surveying equipment, these early settlers continued to use gravity to create a water flow that followed the natural landscape and often appeared to run upstream. With wooden spades, crowbars, hoes, plows, and rawhides pulled by mules or oxen, they constructed an earthen presa or dam that pushed the water into the acequia madre (the “mother ditch,” or main irrigation canal that runs through the community). Compuertas (head gates) controlled the flow of water to the mother ditch, and a desague (a small outlet drain) helped clean debris from the main ditch and put water back into the main channel or stream flow. Sangrias, or lateral ditches, to irrigate individual parcels were also built throughout the system, connecting ditches with canoas (a log that carries acequia water across an arroyo), and canyons to create an intricate and efficient irrigation system within the community. These remarkable human carvings in the earth defined the spatial boundaries of each settlement and provided life‑giving water to the thirsty soil that nurtured their crops. 

Ultimately, this system of irrigation and sustainable agricultural tradition created unique cultural regions, which were fed by life-giving water, which created new and productive bioregions that did not exist before. In populated areas such as Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Las Cruces the management of water resources was administered by cabildos or town councils. In more isolated areas such as the Pojoaque valley, water was administered according to local custom under the general direction of the Leyes de las Indias (Law of the Indies) which governed all of the provinces in northern New Spain.

Today, each acequia system that has four or more parciantes (water-rights owners), must have bylaws, a three member elected commission and a mayordomo who is usually elected by the parciantes. These regulations are outlined in the New Mexico State Statutes.  The single distinguishing factor that makes acequias more democratic than other existing institutions is the sharing of water to the very last drop. This tradition is called equidad (equality) and comes from the Qur’an. Under Muslim law and probably because the Nuevo Mexicano acequia system originally evolved in the desert, tradition dictates that people must never deny water to another living being. In Nuevo Mexico to share water with other living entities, which includes animals and plants, is considered a limosna piadosa or a pious charity. 

Another strong belief from acequia culture that has survived for centuries is that water cannot be separated from the land. This concept is best illustrated in the Nuevo Mexicano saying, “L’agua es la sangre de la tierra” (Water is the blood of the land). Traditionally, water was always shared based on the ownership of the amount of land owned by the parciante. From this belief came the concept of peones (a laborer). A peon can be divided in quarters. In most cases, a quarter peon had one acre of land to irrigate and it was divided based on the twenty-four hour day. A quarter would be six hours, but if the water had to be distributed equally and fairly during dry seasons and had to be shared (repartimiento) six hours might turn into fifteen minutes of irrigation time. This sharing also depended on the number of parciantes in the acequia system, but it was always based on the amount of land irrigated by the acequia.                                       

Other traditional factors make acequia culture uniquely democratic. The first is applied to the sharing of food, or el convite (from the Latin convivium). Acequia culture promoted food democracy. When times were hard and the harvest was not plentiful, families who had an abundance of food would prepare a meal and share it with others in the community. The extreme of the convite philosophy was the gueso guisandero. This is when a bone was shared in times of scarce resources. The bone was passed from house to house to give food the taste of meat or gravy when there was none available.

Shared labor was also a strong tradition in acequia culture. Because an acequia system is a worker owned co-op, there could be no cooperative without cooperation. This is a very basic concept, but it has become a difficult philosophy to implement in these times of strict individualism, driven by a capitalistic way of life and government policies that downplay community cooperation. It is the job of the mayordomo to implement this shared labor force within the acequia organization. In the acequia culture of northern New Mexico water does not belong to any one person or a single institution, but must be shared equally. Water is divided first by the amount of water in the river, then according to the amount of land each acequia irrigates, and finally it is based on the number of water users in each acequia system. The democracy of labor can be found during the annual spring cleaning, or following a flood when the acequia needs repair to get the water flowing again. It can also come during the planting and harvest if a neighbor needs help. Just as the water is shared, so is the labor.  There are three words that define acequia democracy, repartimiento, convite, and cooperacion. When one of these elements is missing democracy begins to lose its meaning.                                               

The irrigation system in the Pojoaque Valley has a long history. It is not certain how far back in history Pueblo irrigation techniques extend, but evidence reveals that ancestral Puebloans built terraces and dams to capture flood water in arroyos and they built diversion dams and irrigation canals along streams. Early reports by Gaspar Castano de Sosa in 1591 indicate that San Ildefonso Pueblo “had a very large area under irrigation.” Other references point out that the Pueblos knew and practiced extensive canal irrigation at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards in New Mexico. 

Canal irrigation increased in importance at the end of the 16th century largely because of drought. The construction of elaborate dams and ditches and the formation of a social organization among the Pueblos that utilized a sizable portion of the adult population for irrigation purposes, indicate the importance that Pueblo people placed on irrigation farming. Pueblo irrigation systems were built and maintained as communal affairs and the distribution of waters became an important daily task that was shared by all. 

The implementation of Spanish water law in New Mexico had a definite impact on the Pueblos. Pueblo villages were situated on the most fertile and desirable valleys; consequently Spanish colonies were often established in close proximity to the Pueblo villages to take advantage of these fertile lands. Although Spanish law prohibited intrusion upon Indian lands, the influence and enforcement of water laws were definitely felt by the Pueblos. Residents in the Pojoaque Valley followed these basic settlement patterns during its early development. Several Pueblo villages were firmly established in the area when the Spanish arrived and as a result, Spanish and Pueblo people lived in the same valley and shared the same water to irrigate their farms and water their livestock. 

The common use of these waters continued for several centuries as the acequia system in the valley became more sophisticated and Spanish procedures were established. A system of water law was put into effect and the election of a mayordomo became commonplace, helping to regulate and enforce these new laws and established the tradition in the valley. Although disputes over methods of administering the ditches were not infrequent, these disputes were handled by the district alcalde who acted as arbitrator to settle such matters. With Spaniards and Pueblos often living side by side there were also numerous instances of joint use and cooperation as well. Remarkably, the system functioned well for hundreds of years. 

A court case which occurred in the mid-nineteenth century may have been the turning point and the beginning of serious tension among Hispano and Pueblo water users. Arguments have been raised that much of the dissatisfaction was a result of the introduction of American philosophies on land and water use into New Mexico. The American system was in sharp contrast to the Mexican and Spanish way of doing things.        

In April 1854, Nambe Pueblo sold a parcel of land located northwest of the main plaza to Manuel Romero and Vincente Lopez. The land encompassed approximately 2,339 acres. The reason for the sale was the Pueblo’s need for funds to cover court costs. The case is an interesting one and it illustrates the conflict and differences between Spanish, Mexican, and Indian relationships of the past and the new American ideologies that came with territorial government. 

The Pueblo of Nambe was distraught over the death of a number of children and accused two of their tribal members of practicing witchcraft and “eating” the children. (In the Pueblo culture, eating by witches did not refer to actual consumption, but was in reference to the figurative sucking out of the spirit of the individual). It was customary at this time to attribute personal disasters and misfortunes to witchcraft and the machinations of unpopular neighbors. The Pueblo was also suffering from a series of epidemics introduced earlier by the Spaniards. Several outbreaks of smallpox and diphtheria occurred in New Mexico during the 19th century that were especially disastrous to children.  All of these misfortunes could have easily been attributed to witchcraft by the people of Nambe. 

The two individuals accused of witchcraft were tried by the Pueblo’s elders, found guilty, and sentenced to death. The two condemned men were taken to the Arroyo de los Ortizes, forced to kneel, and were killed with two blasts from a shotgun. In the eyes of the Pueblo, justice had prevailed. Later an unforeseen problem arose. American officials learned of the “barbaric” execution which took place in Nambe and they immediately arrested the governor and the elders for murder. They were taken to Santa Fe for trial.  During the proceedings the Pueblo governor testified that internal problems of the tribe were always settled by the Pueblo council and that no interference had occurred in regard to this form of justice prior to the arrival of Americans in the territory. 

Because of uncertainty in a change of venue, the case was dismissed. Still, the case was costly to the Pueblo and the land sale proceeded as planned. The people of Nambe had used the land in question primarily for grazing, and several farms had been established that utilized irrigation water from the acequia. The new owners continued to use the Acequia del Llano for their irrigation needs as was customary. Eventually, the land came to be known to Nuevomexicano residents as the Romero grant. Convinced that the sale was legitimate, the new owners vacated the remaining Indians and began to make improvements on the acequia system. 

Over the years, further encroachments took place on Nambe land. The Pueblo became involved in other court cases and more land was lost. Gradually, Hispano control became more secure. Additional acequias were constructed, and the matter of water rights became increasingly complex. Gradually, the American judicial system became the law of the land. Consequently, more and more civil actions resulted as new people moved into the territory and United States law prevailed.  By 1924, the federal government had taken significant action towards establishing the rights of the Pueblos in New Mexico and the Pojoaque valley and Pueblo villages involved were destined to feel the impact of this action. The Pueblo land situation in the early 20th century was the result of 75 years of neglect by the United States government. The establishment of the Pueblo Lands Board in 1924 attempted to remedy that situation. 

To understand the position of the Pueblos, it is necessary to review the history of the Pueblo land grants from the time when the United States, by formal treaty with Mexico, assumed possession to the territory now included in New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ratified in 1848, the United States guaranteed the protection of all civil and property rights of citizens of the Mexican Republic who by terms of the treaty were to become citizens of the United States. Pueblo lands received from the King of Spain were surveyed and approved by the Surveyor General of the Territory in 1856, and the lands were confirmed by Congress in 1858. The General Land Office issued patents to most of these properties in 1864. Unfortunately, the federal government did not recognize a need at this time to secure and establish water rights to these lands.  

As illustrated above, prior to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, non-Indian settlements had been purchased within the boundaries of the Pueblo grants. Congress recognized the existence of these third-party rights and provided for them by issuing quitclaim deeds. These circumstances required the creation of the Pueblo Lands Board to settle, by law, the lands to which the Pueblos were entitled. The board was able to settle certain boundary definitions for the Pueblos, but water rights within those boundaries have not been properly established. The issues in the courts today, following 43 years of litigation, center around a settlement that has two primary goals.    

According to New Mexico State Engineer, John D’Antonio these goals are, “to bring additional water into the Pojoaque valley basin, for both Pueblo and non-Pueblo water users and secondly, to protect existing uses in the Nambe-Pojoaque-Tesuque stream system, for both pueblo and non-pueblo water rights owners.” D’Antonio states further that, “the settlement provides an opportunity for the final adjudication of all water rights subject to the Aamodt lawsuit.” He goes on to list a series of twelve legally binding points that would require most parciantes in the valley to hire an attorney just to interpret his interpretation of the agreement that was negotiated to protect their traditional water rights. 

A recent poll, conducted by Brian Sanderoff, concluded that 59% of residents in the Pojoaque Valley had negative feelings about the settlement. Amelia Garcia of Jacona is among the residents that has legitimate concerns about the proposed settlement. Some of her questions include: “What will the actual cost be for those served by the system? For the hookup, all the way to the residence, and the ongoing cost of the delivery of water, what is that cost?   Will the distribution lines go along the main artery? If a homeowner lives three or four miles away will he or she have to pay for the pipeline leading from the main line, as well as the connecting fees?”

Garcia also wants to know, “How many people who will be served by the proposed system and how many will not be able to pay for the cost of delivery? What guarantee of water quality can we expect after all the processing and filtration is accomplished? We know that radioactive material and pharmaceuticals are present in the water, so we want to know what the cost for this purification will be?”  Finally, she asks, “How can a full-distribution system be justified considering the low impact of documented usage of the current well users?” These are just a few examples of legitimate questions that residents and water rights owners are asking state and local officials.   

According to Harry Montoya, the Santa Fe County Commissioner who represents the district of the Pojoaque Valley, “the poll tells me there has not been very good education in explaining the details of the settlement.”  Montoya said he was surprised by the results of the poll because he thought there had been more knowledge and awareness of the settlement agreement. Santa Fe County Manager, Roman Abeyta, said he was not surprised about the poll results. “But you don’t always make decisions as a county based on what is popular or what wasn’t.” Abeyta added that the county’s water policy is to move people away from wells and get them connected to community water systems.

Meanwhile, Paul White, a Chupadero resident who has lobbied against the settlement  has submitted a petition with 1,200 signatures urging reconsideration of the agreement. According to White, no official has responded to the petition and Commissioner Montoya continues to lobby Congress for funding to implement the settlement. Montoya claims the settlement was a “done deal” when the public poll was taken and that the purpose of the poll was to gauge how many users would want to connect to the regional water system because Santa Fe county would be required to build it. Montoya, who is running for State Land Commissioner, said he is not interested in revisiting the terms of the settlement agreement and commented “I think it is as good as it’s going to get. Those who are opposed to it, if they want to litigate it, they have that option,” he emphasized. 

There are other water rights cases in the state which await the outcome of the Aamodt decision. They include other important stream basins in northern New Mexico: the Santa Cruz, Rio Pueblo de Taos, and the Chama river are among the cases that are pending. Proceedings of the Aamodt water rights case will undoubtedly set legal precedent for water rights cases in other areas of the west in the years to come. 

While it is true that the Aamodt settlement involves the legal ownership of water rights in the valley, an equally important issue is also at stake-the survival of northern New Mexico village life. One aspect of the Aamodt case has become painfully clear to everyone involved. Water, which has been shared by nuevomexicano neighbors for centuries, has become a political and economic commodity. The traditional concept of water as a precious gift of life has in, modern New Mexico, become an economic force which will greatly alter the future of the area. One may ask why there were no attempts to negotiate instead of litigate. Circumstances involving the federal government and the American judicial system have placed major obstacles in the way of compromise and in the process threaten the permanent alteration of a unique culture and its history. 

Perhaps a more enlightened approach by the government would have been the adoption of the philosophy chosen by the residents of the Pojoaque Valley to save this precious heritage:  “L’ Agua es Vida, Let’s Share It.”  It’s a simple answer to a complex problem, but it worked in the past and it could work again.     


Sources Used:


1. Spanish Archives of New Mexico, Series I & II, NMSRCA, Santa Fe.

2. Thomas B. Catron Papers, UNM, CSWR, Albuquerque.

3. County Deed Records, Santa Fe County, NMSRCA, Santa Fe.

4. Francis Wilson Papers, NMSRCA, Santa Fe.

5. Santa Fe New Mexican, (newspaper).

6. Baxter, John O. “Spanish Irrigation in the Pojoaque and Tesuque Valleys During the 18th and Early 19th Centuries.” Report, NM State Engineer, 1984.

7. Baxter, John. Dividing New Mexico’s Waters, 1700-1912. UNM, Albuquerque, NM, 1997.

8. Dumar, Charles and others. Pueblo Indian Water Rights: Struggles for a Precious Resource. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ, 1984.

9. Meyer, Michael C. Water in the Hispanic Southwest: A Social and Legal History, 1550—1850. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ, 1984. 

10. Rivera, Jose A. Acequia Culture: Water, Land and Community in the Southwest, A UNM Press, Albuquerque, NM, 1998.

11. Rodriguez, Sylvia. Acequia: Water Sharing, Sanctity, and Place, School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe, NM, 2006.