Land Water People Time

Acequias: lifeblood of the rural north

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Ask any Northern New Mexico parciante — an owner of a derecho (water right) that allows them to divert water onto their land through a compuerta (headgate) from an acequia (ditch) — if irrigating the traditional way is easy. The answer is going to be resoundingly clear, and most likely in Spanish — not only “no” but “$#*@ NO!!!”

So why do they do it? Very few parciantes in the north make a comfortable living off the fruits of their acequia-fed lands; most use the centuries-old irrigation systems to help feed their families and to supplement other sources of income. All the while, they must sweat and toil in the dirt, weeds and mud along their sections of the acequia throughout the year, profit or no profit. They handle shovels, pitchforks, rakes, saws and many other land-working tools, using muscle and backbone to tame sudden and intermittent water releases that can quickly cause more damage than growth. 

Oftentimes, parciantes must burn the midnight oil to usher in this purposeful onslaught of rushing, powerful water. And come rain, wind or shine, the water must be welcomed in, lest they forfeit their turn on the acequia schedule, which might not come again for days or perhaps weeks — especially in extremely dry years such as this one.

For Joe Ciddio, a 73-year-old parciante who’s been tapping into the Acequia Sancochada in Cañoncito near Dixon for more than half a century, the spiritual and emotional benefits of stewarding a personal acequia far outweigh the hard work, expense and year-to-year unpredictability associated with owning and utilizing water rights. 

“It’s like a form of meditation,” Ciddio says of the Zen-like feeling he gets when he diverts water onto his 10 irrigated acres and witnesses it slowly permeating deep into the dry areas where he wants it to go. “Sometimes it’s just like play, like playing with water. I feel so blessed that I’ve been able to do that.”

Ciddio, a former counselor who became director of the Río Grande Treatment Center as well as the Oñate Monument and Visitors Center in Alcalde, married his wife, Ursula, in his late teens. They lived for a time in Denver, California, and Vail. But after becoming fascinated by his father’s and other elders’ stories of the joys and rigors of rural Northern New Mexico living, and influenced by the ’60s counterculture ethic of living off the land, the couple gave up their wanderlust and bought a small piece of land near Ursula’s Dixon-area roots to make a go at farming.

“I was fortunate to get involved with the acequia and the wife’s familia in the area, and I learned from them and the neighbors,” Ciddio says of his initial efforts at making rushing water go where he wanted. The Ciddios eventually raised four children to adulthood on the farm, and grandkids often come visit the empty-nesters. 

“They [my children] still have interest, and they come out here to help when they can,” Ciddio says. “They developed a master plan to care for the property [after we’re gone]. They don’t want to sell.” In the meantime, Ciddio perched atop his tractor is still a familiar sight in Cañoncito. However, he laments, “I’m planting less and less because it’s getting harder and harder.”

Maintaining and preserving the traditional ways of the acequia has driven Mario Romero of Pojoaque since he was 14, when he was taken under the wing of his neighbor, the late Guadalupe Jiron; his dad’s cousin Longino Vigil, a WWII combat veteran who owns a Nambe apple orchard that boasted more than 3,000 trees at the time; and the late Pablo Roybal, who operated a nearby dairy and farm, Rancho de las Lagunas, which for decades delivered fresh milk early every morning to area homes and businesses.

“Working on the acequia makes me feel strong and to appreciate my health and that I’m strong enough to do it. There’s nothing more therapeutic than a No. 2 shovel!” says the 54-year-old Romero, a former ditch commissioner and current parciante of the Acequia de las Joyas in Pojoaque, which he claims is the oldest ditch in the Pojoaque Valley. “A person can live a life without stress with the [acequia] lifestyle. I get satisfaction to see that a place looks healthy and green and that someone appreciates the land. Water is life! Like my Grandpa Liberato used to say, ‘This land is not for you to cash in your chips and sell. It’s for you to enjoy, relieve stress and pass along.’”

Romero says that he learned many modern irrigating techniques from Longino Vigil, including under- and above-ground water delivery systems with PVC pipe as well as concrete-lined acequia paths. “Longino always praised the efficiency of the systems and he used to say, ‘A gallon goes in and a gallon comes out.’”

While most of his mentors have passed away or are now retired from irrigating, Romero has evolved into one of the go-to experts in the Pojoaque Valley, sought out by elderly landowners who aren’t able to work the land anymore, other ditch experts who need his farming skills or novices who just need to learn.

“It takes a lot of work to get water to a person’s land. It just doesn’t get there like a faucet, ” Romero says. “It’s a year-to-year process to tame water, but once you do it right, you can go out there and irrigate a field in your slippers!”

New Mexico Acequia Association

New Mexico has an estimated 800 acequia systems, some of which have existed since Spanish colonistas settled here in the 17th and 18th centuries. According to the Office of the State Engineer, acequias are recognized under New Mexico state law as political subdivisions. Their respective associations have the power of eminent domain but cannot tax, although they are able to exact dues from members and borrow money.

The perseverance of centuries-old water law under several different national governments is complicated, as are the hardships faced by acequia traditions. An invaluable ally is the New Mexico Acequia Association, which offers workshops, information and events dedicated to the acequia lifestyle.

NMAA was founded in 1989 to help keep individual water rights from being transferred mostly to the state and to keep them in agriculture, says Serafina Lombardi, NMAA’s director of education and outreach. In the early 2000s, NMAA worked for passage of a state law that gives acequia associations more power to approve or deny transfers of water rights out of irrigation districts, she says.

Lombardi says the NMAA also helps water users rejuvenate old acequia organizations that have been inactive, helps associations modernize and improve their infrastructure, and helps them acquire grants and funding. “We will hold their hands from the bottom up,” she says.

A mission statement on the NMAA website reads, “The New Mexico Acequia Association strives to protect water and our acequias, grow healthy food for our families and communities, and to honor our cultural heritage.” 

For more information, visit lasacequias.org.

Arnold Vigil is a former Albuquerque Journal reporter and columnist, New Mexico Magazine editor and New Mexico state historical archivist. He is currently rejuvenating his family’s small acequia-fed farm. After many frustrating years, he is finally winning the battle, but not the war, against invasive Siberian elms. He fights them with both backhoe and backbone, both of which are notorious for being temperamental at the most inopportune times.

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