New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

On Acequias

November 02, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Culture, Devon G. Pena, Ecology

Water, Place, Resilience, and Democracy

by Devon G. Peña (Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association; San Luis, Colorado)

{Note: This post is a synthesis of select excerpts from work appearing in a chapter prepared for a forthcoming edited anthology, Voces de Agua: Culture, Place, and Nature in the Acequia Communities of the Upper Rio Grande Bioregion, 1598-2008. This article presents a summary of some of the principal research findings of the path-breaking NEH Upper Rio Grande Hispano Farms study, the core of which was conducted in the field between 1995 and 1999. This massive research project, with more than $190,000 funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, produced the first comprehensive interdisciplinary and farmer-led study of acequia farms of the Río Arriba since the historic Tewa Basin Study of the 1930s; that sadly, is a testament to the neglect of acequia agroecosystems and communities by governmental and academic institutions. The twenty-four research scholars and farmers who collaborated in this major study developed some enduring innovations for integrated social and natural scientific research on Indo-Hispano agroecosystems that have left an enduring mark on the field. The NEH study played a significant role in the revival of acequia studies in the United States at a time when no one was really paying much attention to the study of Chicana/o farmers.}

The environmental history of acequia farms presented requires that we study natural landscapes and anthropogenic (human-induced) cultural landscapes and explore their complex interrelations.  This history of acequia agriculture focuses on the following aspects of environmental change: (1) the characteristics of acequia irrigation technology, (2) the material culture and cultural practices associated with acequia irrigation, and (3) the “disturbance ecology” of the acequia.

1. Acequias as Sustainable Irrigation Technology

Within environmentalist circles, western technology is rightly viewed as an underlying cause of ecological destruction (see Shiva 1988).  In the popular mind, science is often implicated in the destruction of forests because science delivered the merciless mechanical sway of feller-forwarders and other advanced industrial-logging machines.  Given the destructiveness of much of contemporary western technology used by extractive industries, it is sometimes difficult for environmentalists to envision a technology that is ecologically sound and regenerative.  The acequia system provides one such example of a technological basis for sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

The force of gravity powers the water flows in the ditches and so their operation does not require fossil fuel inputs.  Energy systems in acequias are clearly “renewable” and significantly reduce the demand for fossil fuels.  The annual energy costs for acequias are reducible to the cost of labor inputs and animal traction.  Acequias are labor-intensive but economic costs for labor are minimal given the customary rule of mutual aid and cooperative ditch maintenance.  In contrast, modern mechanized irrigation technologies such as the  “center-pivot” sprinkler system eliminate the need for scarce labor but in turn require tremendous energy inputs.  A typical center-pivot sprinkler system costs $60,000 and its operation requires as much as $10,000 in annual fossil fuel inputs.  This clearly is less sustainable when compared to the renewable energy circuits of the acequias.

The landscape ecology of acequias is also sustainable since flood irrigated techniques respect the lay of the land to work with the force of gravity.  In this context, water does not flow uphill. Acequias work with the natural contours of the land and thus preserve the topographical attributes of natural landforms. This, perhaps inadvertently, also protects a wider variety of native plant communities that are adapted to specific niches within the natural (and cultural) landscape. Acequias, one might say, are topographically friendly.  The center-pivot sprinkler system requires the leveling of much of the land because the sprinkler’s tires cannot operate on hillsides or through sumps.  The use of mechanical sprinklers obviously reduces the diversity of the natural landscape with a corresponding loss of wildlife habitat.

The landscape ecology of acequias conserves energy and biodiversity.  The renewable energy systems of acequia-irrigated farms are manifested in the trophic [derived from the Greek τροφή (trophē) referring to food or feeding] and nutrient cycles of the soil and its flora and fauna.  The combination of the riparian long-lot, acequia ditch network, perennial polycultures of land races, and use of livestock combine to maintain the trophic complexity of the agroecosystem by encouraging geographical diversity and an optimum mix of relationships among wildlife, livestock, crops, weeds, trees, shrubs, crops, insects, and pathogens.

The acequias actually enhance the flow of the soil energy circuits through the expanded interaction of diverse elements in the land, water, flora, and fauna.  This also means that the acequia agroecosystem reduces external energy inputs by relying on relatively self-enclosed nutrient cycling; i.e., all nutrient requirements are met by in-situ components of the soil and biota.

The mechanized center-pivot sprinkler systems, by comparison, interrupt and simplify these trophic circuits by imposing uniform monocultures on more naturally diverse landscapes.  These mechanical monocultures are also characterized by open nutrient cycling; i.e., they require high external inputs in the form of agroindustrial chemical fertilizers.  The use of herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides to control soil pathogens, weeds, and other pests affecting crop production also alters the ability of the soil to naturally regenerate its fertility.

Another aspect of the technology of acequias is that most ditch systems do not require huge expenditures in the construction of large check dams and reservoirs. Acequia systems operate with the force of gravity and this force is attained through natural means.  The storage of moisture in winter snow pack is followed by the gradual spring and summer snow melt cycle that provides the energy to operate the system as water moves from the alpine peaks down into the bottom land irrigated acreage and vega wetlands.

One perhaps unforeseen benefit of this energy system is that acequias may discourage excessive logging of watershed forests since these are, after all, the sources of snow pack for the gradual release of in-stream flows through the irrigation season that typically lasts from May into September (Curry 1994, 1996; 1998; Peña and Mondragon Valdéz 1998).  In contrast, the mechanized sprinkler systems require vast expenditures in infrastructure to store and deliver water for use at the point of production.  In most cases, water storage reservoirs destroy native wildlife habitat.  In almost all cases, considerable energy is expended to transport water from source to farm.  While acequias extend the riparian network, center pivots disrupt the hydrology of the watershed by transferring and transporting water to delivery points that are miles from the source.

Soil erosion is another aspect that merits attention here. The acequia is an example of the ancient technique of flood irrigation; this is a traditional system that long has been widely criticized as a source of significant soil erosion.  But the issue seems related more to the efficacy of the ethnoscientific techniques used by the irrigator than any erosive effects inherently associated with flood irrigation technology as such.  No doubt, flood irrigation takes a great deal of skill if the irrigator is to minimize soil erosion.  It is similar to the issue of livestock and range management: Cattle will not overgraze if the cowboy carefully and responsibly manages the herd.  The same is true with the management of the force of gravity in flood irrigation; the flow (speed and volume) of the water must be carefully watched and regulated.  Each field is “set” differently and “changing water” is a constant daily chore during the irrigation season.

The acequia may require greater skill to irrigate without soil erosion, but it makes the job of soil conservation easier in other respects.  For example, the acequia greatly reduces the use of heavy equipment in fields during the irrigation season.  On the contrary, flood irrigation even discourages the use of tractors and other farm implements.  The mechanical center-pivot sprinkler system, on the other hand, is itself a heavy piece of machinery.  The weight of the sprinkler creates ruts in the quarter sections typically irrigated in one “circle” segments.  But this also creates additional stresses on the soil from the effects of compaction.Soil compaction is a major problem for mechanized monocultures but is largely absent in the acequia farming landscape.

The results of our soil surveys suggest this is certainly the case in the Corpus A. Gallegos Farm site, where the project’s consulting hydrologist found very deep topsoil horizons and very few clay lens (from compaction induced by excessive plowing and heavy equipment).  The principal Gallegos site, located a mile west of San Luis, exhibited a five-foot “A” soil horizon (or topsoil) with a half-inch thick clay lens at two feet in the principal corn milpa (usually rendered as a polyculture crop field; the principal alfalfa-oat-winter wheat rotation field also had a five-foot “A” horizon and no clay lens.  There also was very little evidence of soil erosion in any of the fields subject to flood irrigation. Measurement of total dissolved solids (TDS) showed no change in water quality between the head gate and the “tail water” at the end of the crop rows.

It should be evident from these few examples that the acequia irrigation system is much more sustainable than modern mechanized “factory farm” technologies.  The environmental history of acequias suggests that human disturbance of the ecosystem can sometimes enhance biodiversity.  All of the farms in the study utilize historic acequias and only one, the San Luis Peoples Ditch, has been lined with cement.  Most of the earthen lateral and bleeding ditches of the Gallegos and Valdéz farms in San Luis are lined with dense thickets of willow.

The willow thickets lining the ditch banks are not the only habitat created by the acequias on the Gallegos farm. The effects of subirrigation have created two large willow wetlands, about ten acres.  These wetlands host a wide variety of aquatic avian species (in the spring of 1995, we counted eight different species of duck).  La Acequia de San Acacio traverses the Martínez Ranch in San Acacio and it too is lined with willows.  The Cerro Ditch, which crosses the Kaber Ranch in La Corrillera section of San Luis, is one of the most remarkable examples of acequia riparian habitat.  La Acequia de San Antonio on the Arguello farm site in Valdéz is completely lined by old-growth cottonwood, willow, and alder trees.  It is a wildlife habitat for an abundant variety of native species including (possibly) the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher.  La Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero, which traverses the Torres farm site in Arroyo Seco, is likewise solidly lined with old-growth cottonwood trees.  La Acequia Junta y Cienega, traversing the backside of the Arellano farm and orchard in Embudo, was dug at the base of a piñon-juniper forest that covers the looming mesa.  Its banks are also lined with abundant riparian vegetation.  La Acequia de San Juan, hand dug in 1598, is also lined with cottonwood, willow, and alder.

The ditch banks in most of these cases are stable and probably have been for a very long time.  A few of the lateral ditches are cut by bank erosion and the Torcido Ditch laterals on new land acquired by the Gallegos Ranches are the most severe example. (The Torcido Ditch traverses land that was not part of the historic Gallegos long lot.  The family acquired the land from another local rancher in 1984 when cattle had already damaged that ditch.  The Gallegos family is initiating a riparian restoration and bank stabilization project this September with the assistance of a Colorado College environmental studies class.) But the acequia riparian corridors that traverse the farm sites in our study are on the whole in excellent biological condition.  The political and scientific disputes visited upon these ditches have not made the task of maintaining their pristine character intact any easier.  These ditches are a biological resource that is widely undervalued and misunderstood. But many changes have occurred…

2. Acequias and the Material and Symbolic Culture of Indo-Hispano Farms

The acequia is a place-based basis for sustainable agriculture, but it is also invaluable as the “cultural glue” that holds the rural community together.  Acequias are not just an irrigating technology.  They function as social and political institutions. The operation and maintenance of acequias is the collective responsibility of the irrigating community.  As noted by Rowena Rivera (1998), the spring ditch cleanup is an annual event that brings the entire community together. Traditionally, the start of the irrigation season is May 15, the feast day of San Isidro, when the farmers and their families gather to repair and clean the ditches in preparation for the coming cycles of planting and harvesting.

The material culture of the acequia is a complex affair and I do not have the space to elaborate its wondrous nuances. I will limit my comments to the ethical discourses of the irrigating community.

Of critical import to understanding the role of acequias in the environmental history of the Rio Arriba bioregion is how they function as a source of ethical discourses within the local community.  The daily management of a ditch, as Joe Gallegos argues requires that all the parciantes have a well-rounded view of what he calls the “acequiahood.”  The acequiahood occupies a specific physical space, like a neighborhood.  But it is also a moral space shared by the irrigating community.  The extent to which acequias survive, Gallegos states, is contingent on the ability of the parciantes to get along and maintain solidarity in the face of tremendous changes posed by water law and its administration and the increasing threats posed by environmental damage to the watershed from mining, logging, and subdividing.

Historically, there have been periods of crisis and change that affected the acequia water users.  For example, in the 1890s and early 1900s, the acequias of the Culebra watershed had to fight the U.S. Freehold Land and Immigration Company in a readjudication case that nearly resulted in the loss of more than two-thirds of the originally decreed water rights.

Likewise, in the late 1970s and early 1980s the acequias of the Arroyo Hondo land grant had to resist the misappropriation of water rights for the construction of condominiums and second homes serving the Taos Ski Valley.  Every acequia used by the farmers in our study has had to fight these battles repeatedly.  The only thing that has held the acequias together is a set of shared ethical values that unite the parciantes under these dire circumstances.  As Joe Gallegos, mayordomo for the San Luis Peoples Ditch, explains:

Water is the one thing that we all share on this ditch.  We are all very different. Different styles of farming. Different looking homes. Different musical tastes. Different personalities.  You know, we are all really different on this ditch.  But the thing that holds it all together for us is the water.  We share a concern for protecting our water.  Protecting the quantity and quality of the water rights, that is our common ground. And we all know, everyone knows, that the water is a precious resource that needs to be protected from abuse and exploitation.  This water is our lifeblood.  This water is my farm.  It is the plants that I grow. The trees.  Everything is connected to the water. . . I cannot be here as a farmer unless the watershed is protected  (Joe Gallegos, interview bythe author, June 1995, San Luis, Colorado).

Alfredo Montoya, a farmer in Alcalde who uses water from la Acequia de San Juan to irrigate some hay fields, was very conscious of the historical roots of acequia ethics in describing his views on the origins of manito environmental values:

Mae [his wife] and I, well, our children, are Pueblo [Indian] dancers.  And that comes with a lot of responsibility . . . There is a knowledge here that goes back in time, so far back, you can’t even begin to see where it starts.  It is a spiritual knowledge.  It is a connection to past generations and future ones.  It says that we are all connected.  The land, the water, the sky, the animals and plants, the people.  This spiritual belief comes from the native American culture and it has become part of the mexicano culture. We [Pueblo Indians and Hispanos] have lived together for so many centuries the two cultures have really become one . . . My children dance and it is so beautiful . . . I can see this connection in front of me.  That is why we have to protect the water and the land . . . (Alfredo Montoya, interview bythe author, August 1997, Alcalde, New Mexico).

The production and reproduction of an environmental ethic is one of the most important aspects of the history of acequias in the Rio Arriba. And yet, we have only begun to study the ethnography and ethnophilosophy of the historic acequia farming communities.  While we can document how these ethics developed and found expression in practice, it is also the case that, often, the ethics we express are not entirely consistent with behavior.

The customary law of the acequia remains a strong source of ethical outlooks in historic acequia communities.  It seems clear that the refusal of acequias to sell their water rights to the water markets is the strongest evidence of a strong environmental ethic.  But it is also the case that acequias have to negotiate their existence and operation with many different legal and political forces.

For example, the federal Water Resources Development Act of 1986 has been used by some acequia organizations to finance ditch modernization projects that have drawn fire from ecologists and environmentalists.  There is a constant tension between customary law and technique on the one hand and modernist impulses on the other hand as with the case of the San Luis Peoples Ditch.

The customary law of the acequia enshrines four major principles that are truly rooted in antiquity — with ethical and historical roots in Mexico, Spain, north Africa, the Middle East, and India: (1) Water is a communal resource and not a commodity; its is considered as asset-in-place and may not be removed, transferred, or sold outside of the basin or origin; (2) The principle of the one farmer-one vote rule. This restores our long-cherished democratic practice that was lost with Prior’s shift to a share-based system in which larger landowners had more votes; (3) The law also specifies that acequias may rely on labor supplied by the landowners of irrigated land served by the acequia and is the customary practice of cooperative labor and mutual aid.; (4) Acequias allocate water on the basis of principles of equity and fairness and not just priority. This is an especially important principle since it allows irrigators to share scarcity in times of drought instead of following the “priority call” system imposed by Prior Appropriation that provides water only to the most senior water rights at the expense of more junior rights.

Acequieros of the Río Arriba, and especially those in the Culebra River sub-basin, often utter the saying: Sin agua no hay vida –  “Without water there is no life”. This may sound like a negative declaration but is really a positive affirmation of a fundamental tenet underlying what I see as the key to an ‘arid-sensible’ way of life. The aphorism fits a worldview that respects the limits imposed by climate in Colorado’s high altitude San Luis Valley which is after all actually ‘cold desert’ country.

There is an open secret beneath this aridity. It lays hidden in plain view in the form of underappreciated ecological sensibilities that serendipitously gave rise to a few resilient and sustainable headwaters communities. In average years, the high peaks surrounding the ‘Valley’ accumulate deep winter snowpack. The moisture in the snow is gradually released during the spring and summer runoff seasons.

The San Luis Valley is a Rocky Mountain version of an Asian steppe. It is a dry alpine basin with an average elevation of 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) above sea level.

Nestled between two very high mountain ranges, the San Luis Valley receives a scant 7 inches of annual rainfall. This is about the same as California’s Death Valley. However, in good years the massive mountains collect between 180 to 200 inches of winter and spring snowpack on the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range side and more than 450 inches at Wolf Creek on the San Juan Mountains side.

Since this is the ‘land of little rain,’ to steal a phrase from Mary Austin, the snowpack sustains farming and much else in the dry valley below. Located in the southeastern-most corner of the Valley, the Culebra River sub-basin provides the runoff that sustains the local acequia water webs. The acequia farms here are located in fertile bottomlands and some of these are between protective basalt mesas. The deep sandy loam soils of the Culebra bottomlands were created by late Pleistocene glacial outwash, alluvial deposits, and wind swept sources from the surrounding volcanic mesa tops. It is here that the Culebra sub-basin acequias have created one version of the arid-sensible way of life. Sin agua no hay vida.

3. Acequias as a Disturbance Regime

Conservation biologists define ecological disturbance as events and processes that “eliminate some part of the existing plant and animal community, and creat[e] conditions for renewed growth and colonization” (Grumbine 1992, 276).  The ecology of disturbance regimes is part of the emergent theory of island biogeography which studies the complexity of ecosystems as manifested in the landscape mosaic patterns of plant and animal communities.  Natural disturbances such as fires, droughts, insect outbreaks, volcanoes, landslides, and other geomorphological processes constantly reshape the changing face of the natural landscape.  This approach to the study of ecosystems posits chaos and uncertainty (i.e., landscape edginess and patchiness) as sources of the biodiversity that sustains life on the planet.  Anthropogenic change is also within the purview of the ecology of disturbance.  However, while natural disturbances usually increase the diversity of the landscape mosaic, anthropogenic disturbances tend to reduce the diversity of nature and diminish its regenerative properties, which allow it to recover from environmental change.  Few human disturbances increase biodiversity but “some indigenous cultures have even contributed to the biodiversity of their regions . . . suggesting that humans have the potential to act as a keystone species in the most positive sense.  The beaver provides a good model of how humans could contribute to native biodiversity by creating habitats used by many different species” (Noss 1994, 37).

The acequia-irrigated farming system may be one example of a land-based culture that serves as a keystone species (see Peña 1998a).  As we have seen, the disturbances created by acequias extend the limits of native riparian habitat.  In this manner, the human effort to irrigate crop and pasture lands creates habitat used by many different species. In this section, I summarize our research findings on the agroecological qualities of acequias and their role in the maintenance of ecosystem and watershed integrity.

Agroecology of the Acequia.  We have already seen how the acequia creates wildlife habitat and movement corridors.  But there are other ecological benefits of the ditches that strengthen the Hispano farming system. Perhaps the most important ecological benefit of the acequias is that they encourage farmers to preserve native wild and domesticated plant varieties. In fact, the acequia farmers of the Río Arriba play a critical role as conservers of native crops like corn, bean, and squash. They conserve and use wild plants with medicinal properties, as our colleague Enrique Salmon (1998) demonstrates.

The acequia farmers also conserve edible native wild plants.  The quelites (Lamb quarters) is a good example of a wild edible plant preserved by the acequia system. Quelites prefers the disturbed ground of flood-irrigated corn-bean-squash milpas.  Many of the crops grown by acequia farmers are rare and endangered “heirloom” varieties.  For example, the white maize grown in the Culebra River basin is a very rare native crop used for roasting chicos (an heirloom white corn roasted in adobe ovens for winter storage) or making posole (another heirloom white corn that is soaked in food lye and is also used for winter stores). This white corn landrace has unique genetic characteristics that increase resistance to drought and desiccation (from the intense solar radiation at high altitude — the farms are at 8,000 feet above sea level).  This corn also is adapted to a very short, ninety-day growing season. By preserving the special traits of these native crops, acequia farmers are helping to conserve the genetic basis for the food security of the world as a whole.

An interesting quality of these native crops is that they do not require any chemical inputs to grow (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc.).  Thus, the acequia reduces the use of fossil fuels further by encouraging natural methods of pest and weed control. In contrast, the center-pivot sprinkler systems are associated with “monoculture” farming techniques that contribute to the erosion of agrobiodiversity. In this type of industrial farming, only one variety of one species of crop is grown.  The “monocrop” is a sterile hybrid controlled by the seed merchants who are usually subsidiaries of agroindustrial chemical manufacturers like Monsanto. By relying on these monocrops, the industrial farmer is reducing the genetic diversity of our food crops while increasing pollution of the water and land from the use of agroindustrial chemicals.

The environmental history of the Rio Arriba is marked by the massive invasion of exotic species that displaced native plants and animals.  Southwestern landscapes had their own serious bout with the “empire of the dandelion,” to borrow a phrase coined by Alfred Crosby (1986).  What is often overlooked in the study of such invasions is that the Indo-Hispano farming system in many cases preserved and protected native agrobiodiversity.  Hispanos also introduced new exotic varieties that, over time, became “naturalized” within the ecosystem; the ubiquitous habas (horsebeans or European fava beans) are a renowned example of a naturalized exotic.

The ecology of disturbance studies the process of ecological change by focusing on the stochastic effects (uncertainty) of disturbance at the genetic, population, ecosystem, landscape ecology, and biosphere levels (Grumbine 1992).  Our research suggests that the acequia agroecosystem provokes changes at the genetic, population, ecosystem, and landscape ecology levels — all of which increase native biodiversity.  The preservation of native heirloom crop varieties (like bolitas and maíz de concho for oven-roatsed chicos) is an example of the germplasm and genetic diversity.

The preservation of wild medicinal and edible plants and their habitat is an example of population diversity.  The preservation of riparian corridors is an example of ecosystem diversity.  The integration of the watershed and acequia cultural landscape is an example of diversity at the landscape ecology level.  It is at this last, broader-scale level that the acequia system provides the most significant ecological benefits to the bioregion, a point we shall explore in the next section.

Ecological Services of the Acequia.  Recent research in the field of environmental economics focuses on the “quantification” of the value of ecosystems and biodiversity (Pearce 1993; Cobb and Cobb 1994; Gouldner and Kennedy 1997). The concept of “ecological services” (or ecological capital) has been employed to describe the contributions of the land, water, flora and fauna, and even air to the human economy (see especially Constanza and Folke 1997 and Constanza, et al. 1997). The position of the theorists of ecosystem capital is that “[t]he services of ecological systems and the natural capital stocks that produce them are critical to the functioning of the Earth’s life-support system.  They contribute to human welfare, both directly and indirectly, and therefore represent part of the total economic value of the planet (Constanza, et al. 1997, 1).

The ecological services provided by “nature’s economy” consist of “flows of materials, energy, and information from natural capital stocks which combine with manufactured and human capital services to produce human welfare” (Constanza, et al. 1997, 2).  This research has led environmental economists to place the value of global ecosystem services at $33 trillion (U.S.) dollars.  About 33 percent of this estimated value comes from terrestrial systems, mainly forests, and wetlands (Constanza et al. 1997, 8).

While environmental economists have developed very convincing and sophisticated models of the ecological services provided by the natural environment, they have been less adept at resolving the moral arguments posed by the reduction of nature to commodity form in cost-benefit analytic approaches to the “valuation” of ecological capital (for related commentary see Levidow 1992; also see Jansson, Hammer, Folke, and Constanza 1994 and Pearce and Moran 1994). This approach has been criticized for treating the “natural conditions of production and reproduction” as “capital stock,” and for justifying the exploitation of biological diversity and ecosystems as mere commodities (O’Connor 1996, Levidow 1992, Peña 1997).

Critics note that the environmental economists (also known as “new resource economists”) have not dealt with the political and social movement dimensions of valuation, opting for a market-oriented logic that conveniently overlooks the lack of “ecological democracy.”  Despite this criticism, environmental economics is increasingly used in the mounting public debate over land and water use and development and is becoming a critical weapon in the politics of management and control of natural resource domains.  Those who ignore the force of economic categories in public discourse, and who fail to develop a critical approach to the quantification of ecosystem values, risk ineffectiveness in local and regional environmental disputes over the value of natural and cultural landscapes.

Clearly, environmental economics provides a useful tool for assessing the contributions made by the natural conditions of production to the overall functioning of the human economy.  However, environmental economists have failed to integrate the valuation of cultural landscapes in their models of ecological capital.  The focus on “ecological capital” such as biodiversity (flora and fauna), ecosystems and especially particular biomes (e.g., wetlands, rainforests) is consistent with an approach that posits an awkward dichotomy between natural and built environments.  The possibility that cultural landscapes play a role in the provision of ecological services has thus been largely overlooked in this literature.

In part, this is a consequence of the tendency within environmental economics to reduce the complex and dialectical relationships between nature and cultures to one in which nature is separated from humans except as a provider of raw materials and the foundation for the planet’s life-support system.  Environmental economists should take a lesson from conservation biologists and cultural ecologists who provide a counterpoint to this dichotomous view of the nature-culture relationship.  By recognizing that humans are part of the ecosystem, and recognizing that people can provide important ecological services to the environment, conservation biologists and cultural ecologists have challenged the dominant construct of a pristine and raped nature set off against a domineering and destructive humanity:

[T]he exclusion of humans from nature deforms both.  Set off against nature, humans can only work harm in the world.  Any possibility of constructive stewardship is denied them, and the best they can do for nature is depart it and leave it alone.  But nature suffers as well in this separation from human beings, because it is deprived of the services humans render as rightful citizens of the biotic community (Kane 1994: 70).

Our research is an initial attempt to quantify the effects of “constructive stewardship.”  What happens to ecosystem values when humans act like the keystone species — is new habitat created for other species?  Do humans ever behave in ways that increase and improve biodiversity and ecosystem integrity?  What are the services that humans provide to the ecosystem? Under what conditions do humans or, more specifically, certain local cultures contribute valuable services that replenish or even create ecological capital?  What is the value of these anthropogenic ecological services to the local, regional, national, and even global economies?

The ecological services provided by acequias can be classified into five major categories: (1) biological, (2) hydrological, (3) geochemical, (4) topographical, and (5) cultural ecological.  These services are important not just to the acequia agroecosystem but yield benefits for the larger regional economy as well.

How do acequias provide biological services to the ecosystem?  Acequias create wetlands through a process known as “subirrigation.”  As the farmer flood irrigates with the acequia, some of the water moves through the soil and collects in low-lying areas (“sumps”) where wetlands are created.  This, of course, means that acequias create invaluable habitat for wildlife. This biological service derives from the manner in which the acequia system respects the diversity of the natural landscape.

While the creation of wildlife habitat and movement corridors is important, the acequia also contributes to the preservation of native crop diversity (i.e., agrobiodiversity).  Acequia farmers are preserving more than four hundred varieties of native landrace crops such as corn, beans, squash, and orchard fruit varieties.  Every one of the eight farms in our study is a veritable storehouse of native crop germplasm.  The seed-saving tradition practiced by acequia farmers is an enduring aspect of the local cultures.

Witness, for example, the one-hundred-year-old calabacita (squash) and calabaza (pumpkin) seeds traded among Adelmo Kaber, Joe Gallegos, and other San Luis-area farmers and ranchers.  Seed saving is encouraged because the acequia cultural landscape does not easily lend itself to the economies of scale favoring the use of industrial monocultures.  In this manner, the acequia reduces the farmers’ dependency on seed merchants that is characteristic of such monocultures.  Seed saving is good for biodiversity and economic autonomy.

The ecological services provided by acequias to the hydrology of the local and regional watersheds are also very significant. The acequias yield no net deficit for microbasin water “budgets” because of subirrigation. Acequia “tail waters” also return to in-stream flow through gradual surface run-off into creeks and other watercourses.  The acequia green belts and riparian corridors also contribute to the local water budget through the process of evapotranspiration that results from the proliferation of riparian plant communities.

Finally, the surface flows of acequias are hydrologically connected with groundwater aquifers and recharge zones.  These ecological properties of the acequia led the preeminent hydrologist, Robert Curry, to conclude that the gravity-driven ditches are more efficient at delivering water to crops and their surrounding ecosystem than the center-pivot sprinkler systems (in personal communication to author, April 1996).

Some of the ecological services provided by acequias are geochemical in character.  For example, acequias help to maintain water quality because anthropogenic willow wetlands provide a natural filtering mechanism.  We now understand that water quality is enhanced by the presence of wetlands; so much so, in fact, that artificial wetlands have become the latest innovative technology for the treatment of wastewater and sewage (see The acequia system increases both the number and size of wetlands, adding a significant factor to the maintenance of higher water quality.

This may be the most profound contribution that acequias have made to the environmental history of the bioregion.  If you examine historic photographs of Hispano farming communities in the Rio Arriba, you notice that during the nineteenth century there were fewer wetlands in the landscape within and surrounding the villages.  Historic (late Nineteenth Century) photographs of San Luis, Valdez, Arroyo Seco, Embudo, and Alcalde all reveal that not all the ditches were lined by trees and the fields had fewer wetlands as more recent photographs reveal.  Historic photographs of the Gallegos Ranch in San Luis also show that the landscape had fewer trees and wetlands.  In that case, it took more than one hundred years for the acequia landscapes of the Culebra to produce the now common and quite dense plant communities of the anthropogenic riparian corridors and wetlands that show up in photographs taken after the 1960s.

The topographical features of the watershed are also preserved by the acequia agroecosystem.  The acequia, since it is based on natural traction (i.e., gravity flows), must respect the limits imposed by natural landforms and watercourses.  With acequias, one cannot send water uphill toward money.  This built-in respect for the “natural lay of the land” must not be underestimated as a factor in the integrity of the ecosystem.  The acequia tends not to disrupt the natural flow of the landscape; instead it fits in with the ecosystem like a harmoniously integrated puzzle piece, adding biodiversity to and promoting linkages with the evolving, and high integrated, cultural and ecological landscape mosaic.

Acequias have an obstinate proclivity to link and connect: river-to-ditch, ditch-to-garden, garden-to-orchard, orchard-to-ditch, ditch-to-river.  This has obvious biological consequences as we have seen repeatedly throughout this presentation.  But it also has profound cultural and economic consequences.  The respect for topographical diversity enhances the historic character and aesthetic value of the cultural landscape.  This makes the acequia cultural landscape a veritable source of the amenity values pursued by the tourism industry.  Acequia cultural landscapes, especially when considered in tandem with the equally rare and endangered riparian long-lot settlement pattern, provide the material basis and natural infrastructure for the preservation of historic, cultural, and biological values (see Rivera and Peña 1997; Rivera 1998 for further discussion).

This leads to the final set of ecological services provided by the acequia: the preservation of cultural ecological values.  The topographical properties described above correspond with the material culture of the acequia system.  But life in the acequiahood requires a symbol system for the construction of “meaning” and “identity.”  We have seen how the acequia perhaps is the foremost native institution for the reproduction of a civic culture that promotes local self-governance, i.e., Rivera’s “acequia democracy.”

Ecology, sense of place, and water democracy. We have not yet explored the role of the acequia in the formation of place-based identities that are clearly part of the process of the creation of community values, beliefs, and attitudes toward nature and natural processes.  Our colleague, Christine M. Esquibel (1997), has outlined some of the general spatial and cultural properties of identity formation in this context through an exploratory ethnographic study of the effects of place-based curriculum on language acquisition.  This work is based on the experiential instruction of children in Spanish vocabulary through the vernacular language of the acequia.

This research shows that children of the Rio Arriba develop a richer vocabulary and articulate a very strong place-based identity that includes a deep affinity for the acequia as a symbol of the connection of the community to its land and water.  The development of a “sense of place” is an important aspect of the process that leads to such an identity.  And the acequia, as a prominent institution in the daily life of the community, is a major source of values and beliefs that shape place-based identity.

From a cultural ecological point of view, this is definitely good news. It suggests that acequias have the capacity to promote stewardship and conservation values and, in the process, cultural cohesion and social cooperation.  It means that the acequia is not just an institution for local self-governance; it also serves as a method of civic instruction by promoting a sense of community and nurturing local knowledge of place.

Of course, it is difficult to quantify this sort of value and perhaps we should resist the temptation.  How do you place an economic value on local knowledge of the ecological and cultural landscape? Or a local sense of place?  A conservation ethic? Can you reduce it to the price of a patent on a gene fragment from the Culebra white corn heirloom varieties that rapidly mature under extreme environmental conditions?  Can you price it as a water right for sale to the highest bidder?

The cultural ecological values of acequias derive from the promulgation of values that support environmental protection and the preservation of cultural and historical heritage.  You cannot put a price on this consequence of acequia agriculture.  But you can certainly surmise that without this ethic of place, the struggle for ecological and cultural diversity would not be at the center of the Indo-Hispano experience in the Rio Arriba.


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Curry, Robert R., et al. 1996.  Critical analysis of Montana best management practices and sustainable alternatives.Technical consultants report presented to the Costilla County Land Use Planning Commission. San Luis, CO: Costilla County Conservancy District.

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Esquibel, Christine M.  1997. The place-based vernacular of the acequia and language acquisition in science education. Final research scholar’s report.  Upper Rio Grande Hispano Farms Study. National Endowment for the Humanities, Grant #RO 22707-94.

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Peña, Devon G. 1997. Ecological services provided by the acequias of the Upper Rio Grande. Preliminary research scholar’s report.  Upper Rio Grande Hispano Farms Study. National Endowment for the Humanities, Grant #RO 22707-94.

Peña, Devon G. and Mondragon Valdéz, Maria 1998. The ‘brown’ and the ‘green’ revisited: Chicanos and environmental politics in the Upper Rio Grande. In: The struggle for ecological democracy: Environmental justice movements in the United States, ed. Daniel Faber. New York: Guilford Press.

Rivera, Rowena 1998. The sacred origins of agriculture. Final research scholar’s report.  Upper Rio Grande Hispano Farms Study. National Endowment for the Humanities, Grant #RO 22707-94.

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Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog (where this three-part series on acequias originally appeared), and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

0 Comments to “On Acequias”

  1. Nice post which The force of gravity powers the water flows in the ditches and so their operation does not require fossil fuel inputs. Energy systems in acequias are clearly renewable and significantly reduce the demand for fossil fuels. Thanks a lot for posting.


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