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The hydraulic genius of Shari’ah law

You’ve probably never heard the term “acequia,” but it describes one of the oldest methods of irrigation on the planet. Too bad American ranchers have largely ignored it.

Story and photography by ROBERTO LOVATO

The Water Innovators | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Winter 2017

José Avila is what’s called a ditch leader, or a mayordomo—a Spanish term from the Arabic sahib-al saquiya: the one who takes care of and divides the water. In Colorado and New Mexico, they are referred to as el digno de confianza—the one who is worthy of trust. In either case, their job is to manage the local acequias, a system of irrigation that has been passed from country to country for centuries.

Near the southernmost deserts of Colorado, in the immense silence and blue shadow of the Sangre de Cristo (blood of Christ) mountains, José Avila’s raspy, soft voice seems to blend seamlessly with the swish of water flowing in the irrigation ditch cutting through the alfalfa farm at our feet. A 30-degree chill begins what will later become a 70-degree October day in the San Luis valley. The farm’s quiet feels eons away from Denver, Colorado Springs, and other upstream cities that are trapped in yearly cycles of drought, fires, and other water calamities. Such is the fate of the arid land between the Rio Grande and Interstate 25, as opposed to the communities where the Culebra River flows.

With the ditch burbling next to him, José explains the ancient practice of dividing the flow of water with acequias, the gravity-based ditch and communal water management systems that have irrigated farms in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico since the arrival of the conquistadores. To be historically precise, the conquistadores–and the indian warriors and craftsmen accompanying them from Mexico–brought this technology with them on their transatlantic journey from the semi-arid regions of 16th-century southern Spain to the New World. The Spaniards, in turn, learned it from their Arab and Berber conquerors, whose civilization dominated large of swaths of Spain’s Iberian peninsula for more than seven centuries.

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