Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water

Juan Estevan Arellano is a journalist who spent most of his life working with the irrigation networks in Northern New Mexico and studying the world history that led to the development of acequias and irrigation networks in his homeland. Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water mixes Arellano’s own personal experiences working the land with a broader historical perspective analyzing irrigation techniques in the Indus Valley, the Iberian Peninsula, and the American Southwest. Arellano incorporates his own research, travel experiences, and practical experience to explore the history of acequias, or water canals. He further uses this information to describe his own querencia, or love of place.

In Part I, “The Wisdom of the Land,” Arellano outlines the book’s trajectory while giving an autobiographical account, describing his philosophy on water distribution and describing the original land grants in New Mexico. He situates himself on the Embudo Land Grant and places an emphasis on his use of the Acequia Junta y Ciénaga. Situated in his place, Arellano then explains how his Indo-hispano heritage influenced his view that water is a common resource to be shared and not sold for profit. After divulging his personal predilections, Arellano gives a history of his native landscape, describing the first Spanish land grant and settlement of the region by Don Juan Narrihonda Salazar de Oñate. This history transitions to a description of the land grants encapsulating his current property.

In the next chapter, “Sacred Water,” Arellano catalogues historical water management techniques ranging from Yemen to South America. Believing that his New Mexican open-air irrigation culture derives from Moorish influence, Arellano begins his analysis in ancient Yemen. He notes that irrigation in Yemen dates back at least 5,200 years, and points out that, linguistically, many words describing irrigation techniques come from the Sabaen language that originated in Yemen. Arellano relates this tradition to his own culture, pointing out that acequias originated in Yemen and then made their way to North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and eventually the Americas.
Continuing with his historical analysis, Arellano explains how similar irrigation practices developed in Europe, particularly Switzerland. Recounting how the Swiss treated water as a common right, he explains the function of consortages, common-property corporations that managed the canals. Furthermore, he emphasizes how landscapes dictate different types of irrigation by delving into Les Hortillonnages, French marshland gardens. The example of Les Hortillonnages shows how open-air canals function in marshland habitats as opposed to Arellano’s native desert landscape. Arellano then transitions to the Muslim influence on European agriculture and irrigation by analyzing texts by Muslim authors going back to 1 A.D., explaining how these texts impacted agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula. To exemplify the influence, Arellano outlines Ses Feixes of Ibiza, a network of channels off the coast of Spain created using Muslim irrigation principles.

Finally, Arellano transitions to Incan irrigation themes. He traces the development of rock acequias cut through the Andes and their importance for watering terraces. As examples of these achievements, Arellano goes into depth describing the city of Choquequirao, the Terraces of Moray, the Tipón Aqueducts, and Argentina’s acequias. Staying in the Western Hemisphere, Arellano next describes the Mesoamerican irrigation principles that preceded New Mexico’s acequias. He notes how Mesoamericans coupled acequias with chinampas, an artificially created floating garden, in order to irrigate the landscape. All these examples show the diverse influences that collectively shaped irrigation in Arellano’s native New Mexico.

Arellano begins Part II, “The Knowledge of the Water,” with Chapter 2, “The Camino Real de Tierra Adentro: The Water Road.” In this chapter, Arellano offers a thorough discussion of early irrigation principles in Mexico and New Mexico. He points out that the Spanish and Native Americans had distinct irrigation systems and that these systems integrated as the two interacted. Arellano analyzes how Spanish law, particularly the Law of the Indies, influenced the development of irrigation and water systems in the New World by fostering notions of communal responsibility and public use. He places a great deal of importance on early development of acequias and canals because the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 protected existing acequias and their easements. Arellano further emphasizes that these original acequias were handled communally. He then defines the Rio Arriba bioregion, stretching from south of Santa Fe to the San Luis Valley in Colorado, and describes the development of acequias and agriculture in the bioregion that he focuses on for the rest of the book.

In the third chapter, “The Embudo Land Grant,” Arellano describes the laws regulating irrigation in the New World and then describes the land in the Embudo Land Grant. He argues that three main laws influenced Spanish development of irrigation: King Philip II’s Ordenanzas, the Law of the Indies of 1681, and the Plan of Pitic. Focusing on the Law of the Indies, Arellano notes how processes concerning land occupation, water sharing, grazing, and relations with Native Americans functioned. Arellano then describes the landscape of the Sebastián Martin Land Grant, which is within the Embudo Land Grant, noting how its development comported with the aforementioned laws. In addition, Arellano uses this chapter to explain economic development within the Embudo Land Grant, demonstrating how the switch from a traditional agricultural economy to the modern industrial economy led to degradation of the landscape and the acequias.

In the fourth chapter, “La Merced,” Arellano highlights many facets of New Mexican agriculture, primarily the acequia. “Merced” is the Spanish word for “land grant,” and Arellano emphasizes three parts of the land grants: the commons, the acequias, and the suertas, or the private land irrigated by the acequias. He explains the system of mayordomos, or administrators who handle the acequias. Arellano’s knowledge of this role is very personal, as he currently serves as the mayordomo of his acequia. From this personal knowledge, Arellano describes how co-owners of acequias work together to manage them and elucidates the technicalities of acequias’ function and construction. In addition, Arellano thoroughly discusses the four different types of terraces served by acequias: those on slopes, in valleys, on terraces along bends in the river, and on mini-terraces. Lastly, Arellano reminds the reader of the history of agriculture and emphasizes how this history came to be, thanks in large part to the acequias. He illustrates the blending of traditional crops such as corn, sunflowers, squash, gourds, and chiles with Old World crops such as soybeans, coffee, and limes to create what is now a uniquely New Mexican cuisine.

In the final chapter, “Mi Querencia,” Arellano gives a final autobiography and praises the acequias for helping form his connection to the land that his family has cultivated since 1725. He laments that many acequias are falling into disrepair, pleading for people to care about the resource and to preserve traditional modes of agriculture. In addition, Arellano makes many connections between his multicultural heritage and the multiethnic forces that combined to create the acequia landscape.

Enduring Acequias is an intimate collection of local knowledge and experience. Arellano’s deep connection to the land and its water led him on a path of academic research and linguistic adventure that he used to better understand his own patch of land on the Embudo Land Grant. He effectively combines old Spanish laws, Muslim agricultural literature, and a knowledge of open-air irrigation around the planet to further the provincial knowledge of his own landscape. Arellano’s unique blend of storytelling frequently jumps from New Mexico to the Old World and back again, but the transitions consistently connect the common themes of developing irrigation practices, history, and the communal nature of acequias. His mélange approach to his own querencia and culture serves as a fascinating window into the irrigation culture of New Mexico and the milieu of cultural phenomena that formed it.


The title image features an irrigation ditch in Northern New Mexico and is part of the public domain because it was created by an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture.