Las acequias: Green network of life

Sylvia Rodriguez

This is the first in a series of short columns about acequias in the Taos Valley, to be published over the coming months by the Taos News, under the auspices of the Taos Valley Acequia Association.

The essays will be written by me, Sylvia Rodriguez, a coyota "native anthropologist," acequia commissioner and TVAA board member.

Since childhood I have loved acequias, having grown up playing along a lateral of the Acequia Madre del Río Pueblo in the town of Taos during what turned out to be its last full decade of operation.

As an adult I fell under the spell of what one colleague playfully calls acequialocura (acequia madness). I devote time to studying, watching, being involved with, serving, working for, learning, writing, reading and talking about, photographing and admiring acequias, including my own.

Oh yes - and trying to irrigate.

Acequias arose in the Taos Valley and elsewhere in New Mexico during Spanish colonization. Central to the Old World agropastoral subsistence economy Spanish mestizo settlers brought with them, acequias transformed the landscape/waterscape, ecology and sociopolitical relations throughout the region. They are integral to who Taoseños and Nuevomexicanos in general feel themselves to be as a land-based people - the key to their querencia (love of place).

Acequias are a precious, irreplaceable part of what it once meant, now means, will mean to live in this place. To cold economic interests their associated water rights represent the blue-chip stocks on an ever-escalating New Mexico water market.

To water and irrigation scholars and scientists they represent an example of what anthropologists call autonomous or farmer-organized, gravity-driven irrigation systems. These small-scale irrigation communities are found all over the world and exhibit strikingly similar principles of governance.

Acequias matter because they are a living yet endangered example of sustainable, resilient systems for governing a common pool resource. They have important lessons to teach us, especially in an era of accelerating climate change.

A reigning dogma of 20th-century economic theory holds that individual self-interest inevitably will plunder and deplete a common pool resource such as a fishery, shared woodland or water source. Hence only the state or a private corporation can successfully maintain and manage a vital resource.

This doctrine, known as the "tragedy of the commons," has dictated public policy. It was challenged by the groundbreaking research of Elinor Ostrom, who proved how groups of mutually committed and accountable stakeholders can sustainably and resiliently manage a common pool resource though time. For this work she got the Nobel Prize. Among her case studies from around the world were autonomous irrigation systems, including those in Valencia, Spain, which share a common ancestry with New Mexico's acequias.

Acequias have never been more studied, written about, photographed, celebrated, politically organized or threatened with extinction than they are today. Virtually everyone pays lip service to acequias - they are like motherhood and apple pie.

But in truth, all nonacequia interests (just about everyone except parciantes or members and their elected officers) covet acequia water rights and assume these inevitably will be taken out of local agriculture and put to better (urban and more profitable) beneficial use.

From a modern bureaucratic standpoint, acequias are considered obsolete, inefficient and doomed. This column aims to show otherwise.

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