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Community and Culture vs. Commodification:
The Survival of Acequias and Traditional Communities in New Mexico

By Paula Garcia

Much of New Mexico's history has been shaped by ongoing conflicts over land and water. Vivid in the collective memory of the Indo-Hispano people of New Mexico is the history of expropriation of the mercedes or common lands of community land grants. Present-day heirs of the land grants continue their struggle to reconstitute their ancestral homelands and ancient form of communal land tenure. Since the loss of the land grant common lands remains an unresolved chapter of New Mexico's history, the chapter on water in traditional communities continues to unfold.

The current struggle over water in New Mexico is between two world views. In one, water is considered a community resource and the sharing of water and agricultural traditions are vital to the survival of land-based culture and communities. In the other, water is considered a private property right to be bought and sold in a water market in which the value of water is determined within a narrow economic definition.

Acequias, ancient systems of community-based water management and distribution, continue to provide water for traditional agricultural practices in New Mexico much as they have for hundreds of years. An acequia is an irrigation ditch and, in New Mexico, an acequia also refers to the community of farmers that cooperatively maintain the ditch and share water through local customs.

Acequias have been the key voice in raising concerns about the commodification of water both because of their cultural viewpoint and, also, because as representatives of some of the poorest rural communities in New Mexico, they have the most to lose in a market-dominated approach to the allocation of water. An unfettered water market threatens to dispossess rural communities of the fundamental resource vital to a land-based economy and all future options for sustainable rural development. Indeed, all communities, not only acequias and agricultural communities, should be concerned about water being a marketable commodity, since entities with the most money, not the people, can be the final arbiter of who has water rights. Most people would agree that a situation in which a rich entity could outbid an entire community or region for its own water would not be in the public interest of the state of New Mexico and would be a fundamental blow to democracy. As local, participatory democracies that manage water based on indigenous knowledge accumulated over generations in their own watersheds, acequias have important lessons for anyone interested in the sustainable, just, and equitable use of water in the arid environs of the Southwest.

Most of the acequias are concentrated in the historically agricultural villages of northern New Mexico that are also characterized by the highest rates of poverty and highest percentage of Hispanic population. Altogether, there are more than 1,000 acequias in New Mexico and each provides water for several families (ranging from three to more than a hundred) who make all or part of their income and subsistence from their small-scale farming and ranching operations. Because they serve as the agricultural infrastructure for the land-based economy that supports thousands of predominantly Indo-Hispano families, acequias are vital to the survival of the traditional communities of New Mexico.

Among acequias, water is viewed as a community resource. This view was supported under Spanish and Mexican law in the recognition of customary practice in the distribution of water within and between acequias. Acequia governance is rooted in Spain with Arab and Roman influences and, over the past several hundred years, acequias developed customs and traditions unique to New Mexico and unique to each acequia. Although there are local variations in customs, the common thread among acequias is the community value of water.

Decisions about the distribution of water from a common source and maintaining the ditch are mad democratically by the collective and delegated to an elected comision and mayordomo. Generally, acequias make arrangements for sharing water in times of shortage, and, although individuals or families have derechos for their irrigated plot, water is considered to be part of the community and vital to its continued survival. By custom and tradition, acequias provide not so much the private ownership of water rights but the right to participate in the collective governance of the acequia and the duty to contribute to the maintenance of the acequia.

A major threat to the communal system of management characteristic of acequias is the private, individual ownership of water rights that are transferable to other places or uses outside the acequia. After the U.S. conquest of Mexico and subsequent statehood of New Mexico, the laws governing the allocation of water changed significantly. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo provided for the protection of the rights of Mexican citizens in the ceded territories; and the New Mexico constitution confirmed existing water rights, much of the power of acequias to manage water was undermined by the privatization of water rights, so that individuals rather than communities could control water. In fact, some of the individuals behind the privatization of the land grants commons also had a hand in crafting New Mexico's laws to allow for the private sale of communal water.

More than a hundred years following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and for several decades following statehood, acequias in New Mexico continued their operations primarily by custom. Although state statutes provided for the individual ownership of water rights, the view of water among acequias as a community resource prevailed to a large extent. More recent demands for water have begun to challenge the acequia traditions.

During the past 20 or 30 years, growth in New Mexico has resulted in unprecedented demands for water. Since finite supplies are either fully or over appropriated, most new uses of water, except for domestic well permits, require a transfer of existing water rights. In recent years, acequias have seen an increase in applications to transfer water rights away from agriculture to urban, industrial, subdivision or tourism development.

The process of transferring a water right is a complete disregard of acequia customs and community-based management for several reasons:

  • a water transfer is only possible by quantifying the water right of an individual owner, which goes against the traditional view of water as a community resource
  • applicants thus far have tended to neglect the provision of notice to the governing body of the acequia, the comision, of the intent to transfer the water right and thereby have undermined any authority of the comision to regulate or protest the water transfer
  • after a water transfer has occurred, the acequia loses the contribution of that family to the maintenance and collective governance of the acequia. If that trend continues, it could lead to the piece-meal dismantling of a centuries-old system of self-government and the erosion of land-based culture and agricultural economy.

Acequias have responded to the threat of water transfers on a number of levels. Some acequias have filed objections against transfers to the Office of the State Engineer, the administrator of water rights in New Mexico, and have asserted that water transfers out of acequias are contrary to the public welfare of the state of New Mexico. Wile many protests have been filed by the individual acequia representatives, other protests have become a broad collaborative effort between key acequia leaders on behalf of their acequias.

Important developments in the grassroots movement to protect acequias have been the formation of regional associations and the statewide association of acequias. Regional associations were formed primarily to provide a unified defense in adjudication suits filed by the state to quantify water rights. These associations have mobilized vast volunteer and financial resources to secure legal representation and consultants and have been successful in defending acequia water rights and local water management customs. The statewide association, the New Mexico Acequia Association, was founded to address the systematic attempts to transfer water away from acequias and to support local acequias in water transfer protests and in the adjudication process. In the past two years, the New Mexico Acequia Association has grown to include most of the major regional association in the state and has mounted a campaign to protect acequias from increasing demands for water.

The statewide effort to ensure the continued survival of acequias has focused on two areas: strengthening the self-governance of acequias at the local level and building an organization with the capacity to influence water, land use, and development policy. The first area is primarily concerned with organizing at the acequia level to strengthen the regulatory powers of the acequia comision particularly in the control of water transfers. The second area has been directed at policy analysis and advocacy in water policy at the state level. Acequia leaders, along with other key water stakeholders, have challenged attempts by urban legislators in recent years to change state law in such a way that would facilitate water transfers by establishing a state-operated water bank that would serve as a marketing mechanism for buying and selling water rights. The acequia legislative strategy incoming months includes supporting legislation that would require notice of water transfers to the comision and a memorial supporting the policy of the State Engineer prohibiting the transfer of water rights from northern New Mexico to the central part of the state. Other key areas of work in land and water policy are in asserting protections of acequia water rights under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and closely monitoring litigation concerning the Endangered Species Act and assessing its potential impacts on acequias.

The long-term vision for acequias and traditional communities includes a viable land-based economy made up of family-scale agricultural and ranching operations, vibrant and living cultural traditions, and a healthy and diverse ecosystem. For people who are rooted in the land with ties to the water, the struggle against commodification of water and is a struggle for survival. The continued survival of traditional communities will be determined in part by the battles being waged now between powerful development interests and the people of the land.

Paula Garcia is the Executive Director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. A native of Mora, New Mexico, she is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Community & Regional Planning, School of Architecture, at the University of New Mexico.

The New Mexico Acequia Association is working to ensure that acequias continue to be a vital part of our communities through:

  • Advocacy in water, land, and development policy at the local and state levels.
  • Building the capacity of acequias to protect their water from increasing demands for water resources.
  • Promoting land-based livelihoods as living cultural traditions and socially just, sustainable community development.

Contact Information:

Paula can be reached at 505-345-7701, or via e-mail: acequia@email.com.

Internet sources:

La Jicarita News-A community newspaper for the Jicarita watershed, including the Rio Mora, Rio Santa Barbara, Rio de las Trampas, Rio Pueblo, and Rio Embudo.

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"In Alice in Wonderland, poor Alice was plagued by the problem of regulating her own size. One side of the caterpillar's mushroom made her grow, and the other made her shrink, and Alice was hard put to consume the right stimulus at the right rate to achieve the right size. If she erred on one side, she would swoop into hugeness; if on the other, she would instantly dwindle. Twentieth-century efforts at the management of nature bring Alice's dilemma to mind. The goal is to get humanity's role in nature back to the right size, neither too big or too small, neither too powerful nor too powerless. Like Alice, the manager finds it difficult to regulate the rate of change; a seemingly subtle move will have enormous repercussions; causing humans abruptly to become huge again; and a seemingly forceful and direct move will meet implacable resistance from nature, causing them to appear as creatures of great self-importance and little actual stature. Swinging from huge to tiny, dominant to dominated, humanity's place in nature changes from day to day, hour to hour."
--Patricia Nelson Limerick
The Legacy of Conquest
W.W. Norton & Company
1987, New York, New York

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