Acequias and the Hydraulic Genius of Shari’ah Law
You may not have heard the term "acequia," but it describes one of the oldest—and most sustainable—methods of irrigation on the planet. Too bad American ranchers have largely ignored it.
Story and photography by ROBERTO LOVATO
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in our Winter 2017 issue. It is being republished without new reporting.
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, fire, and other water-related 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 conquistadors—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.
“Watch” he says, asking me to pull the tarp away from the section of the farm he wants to irrigate. “Watch how the water does what you ask of it—if you ask the right way.”
José and I are standing in a parched piece of the farm around what’s known as the People’s Ditch, marked by a bronze plaque that commemorates this acequia’s founding in 1852. “Some of the original signers,” José informs me, “have the same last name as the parciantes (affiliated water users) today.” The football-field-sized strip of acequia serves 16 parciantes and irrigates more than 2,100 acres of hay, chicos (dry corn) alfalfa, and other heirloom crops. And this is just one slice of a 4-mile network of earthen and concrete acequias. This watery nervous system connects the People’s Ditch to 14 other acequias uniting more than 350 families, and irrigating in excess of 23,000 acres across the valley.
When I ask José how acequias work, he says “How do you explain how salt tastes?” His Spanglish accent contains hints of the indigenous Purépecha heritage that he brought with him from Michoacán, Mexico. “People write books and tell stories about cambiando agua [literally “changing water”], but I’ve read some of those books and sometimes it’s not stated well. You really have to do it.” José describes acequia as a method of irrigation in which water managers work with what they see as nature’s intent. As romantic as this sounds, it is supported by the findings of Sylvia Rodriguez, a scholar at the School for Advanced Research, a think-tank based in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Acequia irrigation, she says, is “kinesthetic, visual, technical, and interactive, but not especially verbal.”
I check my boots and tuck in my pants in preparation for my first-ever attempt to change the water in the 40 years since I discovered acequias as a curly-haired, working-class, city-boy tourist in southern Spain. Moving slowly, José leads me along the banks of the ditch next to a parcel used to grow alfalfa. Acequias, he explains, “begin with finding springs and venas [veins] of water.” Once they identify a source, locals try to envision the water’s course from higher to lower elevations, according to the natural pull of gravity. Central to the process, he adds, is the excavation of the acequia madre (mother acequia). This is the largest and widest of the family, and it is cut perpendicular to the stream so as to move the water laterally, toward the fields the farmers want irrigated.
José says the parciantes’ job is to make sure the water curves and cradles itself within the natural embrace and gravity of the land. To do this, acequia managers actually re-form the surrounding landscape. Once the higher elevations have been irrigated, any water that remains returns to the original stream, through what’s known as a desague (unwatering) channel located at the acequia’s bottom portion. A line of trees, plants, and other vegetation growing alongside the acequias signal another of their distinguishing features: the ecological benefits of the earthen materials used to build them.
Unlike modern concrete ditches that offer little to no benefit to nearby plant life, a clay- and earthen-based acequia enhances the local ecology, especially the waterway’s borderlands. Called riparian zones, these areas can grow into an entire cornucopia of plants, animals, birds, and insects, which help sustain huge fields of farmland through their interaction.
We walk southward, downstream toward a dry patch of farmland. José furls his eyebrows as he looks around, then reaches for a large orange tarp. “Watch” he says, asking me to pull the tarp away from the section of the farm he wants to irrigate. “Watch how the water does what you ask of it—if you ask the right way.” Sure enough, water rushes down from the presa (an iron diversion dam), flooding the section where José and I are standing and then washing onto the plot of land to the right of the acequia. A 50-foot radius of parched earth suddenly becomes a muddy patch of ground. Seeing life brought so easily to what is essentially a piece of desert gives me a serious rush.
The deserts near the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges remained inhospitable to agriculture for centuries, until the arrival of the acequias, combined with the water management knowledge of native peoples, such as Uti and Tlaxcala (people from Mexico who accompanied the conquistadores to this region).
Devon Peña, a scholar at the University of Washington, breaks this down for me. Peña is one of the world’s leading authorities on acequias, and he uses complexity theory, as well as what’s known as “resilience theory” to describe how acequias contribute to the simple green gorgeousness of a valley. “In order to have equilibrium, you have to have the ability to bounce back from disturbances.” That, he says, is how acequias help the local ecology. “If you don’t have resilience, then all you have is stagnation and homeostasis—and homeostasis is not a good thing.”
Peña lives part-time in the San Luis Valley, where he founded the Acequia Institute, with the mission to support “water democracies, resilient agriculture, and environmental justice.” Between 1995 and 1999, with the help of a major federal grant, Peña led a team of 24 researchers who conducted studies of the acequias’ various “ecosystem services.”
Among other benefits, he found that acequias help create wetlands through what is known as “sub-irrigation,” the process by which water moves through soil and then collects in areas called “sumps”, creating wetlands in the process. This of course boosts the variety and health of the area’s flora and fauna, while also replenishing groundwater aquifers.
“This is the unequalled craftwork of acequias,” Peña says—a very different process, he argues, from the approach to efficiency advocated by groups like the Ditch & Reservoir Company Alliance, a powerhouse lobbying organization for big agriculture, as well as industrial and municipal interests. “They measure ‘progress’ in strictly economic—not ecological—terms.”
The craft of the acequia can be admired from any of the hills and mountains surrounding the San Luis Valley. At more than 8,000 feet above sea level and with average annual rainfall of less than 7 inches (on par with some of the world’s hottest deserts), the valley is not supposed to be as green, gorgeous, or alive as it is. Nor is it supposed to enjoy the equilibrium that the acequias make possible, an equilibrium that I saw lacking on the long drive south from Denver.
The most important term in Islamic law besides “Allah” is “Shari’ah”—a word that originally described the legal principles that governed the water management practices of nomadic tribes in the Arabian Peninsula of the pre-Islamic era.
Crowley County is just a two-and-a-half hour drive across Highway 25, northeast of the San Luis Mountains, but in terms of ecological equilibrium, it resembles another galaxy. Its sorry condition is worth noting if only to underscore the easy gains that acequias offer, and which the practitioners of conventional agriculture ignore, or dismiss as foolish. Signs of human habitation—empty farms turned into cemeteries for rusty agricultural equipment; the occasional For Sale or Trump-Pence signs; and commercial streets with no commerce or people—give the area the feel of futuristic battlegrounds and wastelands like the ones featured in “Independence Day,” and other movies filmed in the region.
Shortly after its birth in 1911, Crowley grew exponentially. Tens of thousands of acres of arable land turned into a rainbow carpet of tomatoes, cantaloupe, onions, corn, wheat, and other crops, until drought colored the land dustbowl brown in the 1930s. Not easily discouraged, and inspired by a vision fusing God, capitalism, and engineering, Crowleyans built a $2-million tunnel into the Rockies through what they identified as the narrowest part of the Continental Divide. A new water day was born.
And then, in the 1970s, another drought darkened their days. Crowley’s response became an object lesson in water catastrophe. Its citizens started a process of separating water from the land, doing what critics today call “buy and dry,” the buying and selling of water rights as a profitable and transferable commodity. Tired of farming amidst the browning-greening-browning dialectic that’s endemic to the area, many Crowley farmers sold the majority of their water rights (90 percent or more in many cases). As a result, water companies like the Crowley County Land and Development Company (CLADCO) saw an opportunity. CLADCO, in turn, sold its water rights to the newly sprawling “Front Range” cities of Colorado Springs, Aurora, and, most notably, Denver, which is now ranked number seven on a list of U.S. cities that will be most affected by climate change.
Of the tens of thousands of acres of arable land around Crowley, 4,000 acres are all that’s farmed now, after the most recent water diversion back toward the West. The rainbow is gone. Farms lie fallow. Local farmers now have to import bees to pollinate what little hay they harvest. But the most glaring of the effects of this separation of the water from the land are found in the dozens of relatively new gray, concrete buildings in Crowley County, housing what is, by far, the region’s most important crop: inmates in both government and private prisons.
The effects of buy-and-dry in Crowley stand as a rusty monument to one of the blindest acts of legal audacity ever devised in the American West: the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation (or DPA). Also known as the “first in time, first in right” system of water management, DPA began amidst the Gold Rush fever in California and spread rapidly.
DPA gives the first person to “appropriate,” or use, the water in a given region the first rights to virtually the entire water flow as the senior water-rights holder. By law, their water needs must be met before anyone else gets water. DPA effectively turns a water right into personal property that, in Colorado and other states, gets treated as shares by the mutual ditch companies that are the primary holders of these rights. In so doing, DPA introduces a Wild West spirit into water management that remains a foundation of civilization west of the Mississippi, a foundation flooded, (and dried and wildfired) by the perpetual flow of disequilibrium.
Standing next to The People’s Ditch, I ask José how it is that acequias have been so successful for so long in a state ruled by the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation. He points immediately to the need to not separate water from the land. “One of the ways I was taught to connect with the land,” José tells me, in Spanglish, “es agarrando un puno y hueliendolo—you have to grab a handful of dirt and smell it. It will tell you what it’s made of, what’s unique about it, what it needs. That’s the beginning.” I grab my own handful of the dark brown soil. Black-speckled water drips onto my hands and down my arm as I lift the clump to my nose. Its grassy smell makes it feel alive. One reason the water and soil have such a rich relationship, I soon learned, is that water is not governed by who gets it first; instead, it’s considered a communal resource.
My journey into the world of acequias began accidentally. I was 12 years old, on vacation with my mother and grandmother. At age 76, Mama Tey didn’t want to die without visiting Andalucia, the land of countless crying virgenes and bleeding Christs made of stone and wood in the dozens of big, dark, boring churches she dragged me into. Andalucia, which sits in the southernmost corner of Spain, was and remains the most arid region in the country. It is also the only part of Europe that built a tourism industry around the marvelous ruins left by Arab conquest.
The Doctrine of Prior Appropriation—the legal structure that guarantees first rights to whomever first uses water from a river—introduces a Wild West spirit into water management. That spirit that remains a foundation of civilization west of the Mississippi, a foundation flooded (and dried and wildfired) by the perpetual flow of disequilibrium.
The boredom of my Andalucian journey was vanquished in Granada, thanks to the monument that rocked my adolescent imagination: the Alhambra, the fortressed royal court and fabulous residence of King Mohammed ibn Yusuf ben Nasr, also known as Alhamar. The founder of the Nasrid kingdom, Alhamar ruled Granada before the Reconquista (reconquest by the Spaniards).
The mellifluous flow of water cascading throughout the Alhambra’s mosaiced stone grounds helped me reverse roles: I was the one dragging my mother and Mama Tey across endless acres of gardens and fountains as we followed the course of the earthen channels sculpted into the palace floors. My clearest memory is of our Moroccan guide: After dazzling us with stories about the fountains, the tall, gaunt man took us to an arched, concrete lookout point facing outward, toward the city and the Sierra Nevada mountains. He described, in Arabic-inflected Spanish, how the “acequia system,” which he called a “marvel of water engineering,” had made the city and its civilization possible. The networks of acequias in Andalucia also laid the legal, engineering, and cultural foundations for the Spanish civilization in which towns and cities like Almeria, La Zubia, and Algeciras kept their Arabic names.
Along with the phrase qa’lat al-Hamra (red castle), the other Arabic term I came home repeating mantra-like that summer was “acequia.” As one of about 4,000 Spanish words rooted in Arabic, the term comes from the pre-Islamic Sabaean (ancient Yemeni) term saquiya (bearer of wine or water), which went on to become the Arabic term as-saqiya (that which gives water). Water management systems like the acequia have for millennia—some say 10,000 years—provided a foundation for desert religions. Over time, water and religion shaped each other. The most important term in Islamic law, besides “Allah,” is Shari’ah—a word that originally described the legal principles that governed the water management practices of nomadic tribes in the Arabian peninsula of the pre-Islamic era.
From Spain, the dynamism and flexibility of the acequia system quickly rooted itself throughout the Spanish Americas, beginning a continental water divide that remains to this day. [For more detail on the path of the acequia’s evolution from the indios of South America on up to the U.S., see our sidebar, “The Multi-Layered History of Acequias in the West,” found near the end of this story.] I was reminded of this history during a 2011 visit to Bolivia. One day, during a break at a global conference on climate change in the city of Cochabamba, I visited an acequia-based, indigenous community of Aymara people.
The Aymaras lived near an arid, rocky landscape at the lower end of a mountain, high in the Andes above town. A guide took me along the path of the local acequia, which he said coursed in this tiny, carnation-producing hamlet through the entire town and into other towns. These Aymara communities were among the indigenous groups that led what some call the Cochabamba Water War of 1999-2000—the fight to regain Cochabamba’s water rights back from the Bechtel corporation. The fight for collective rather than private water rights led directly to the election of Evo Morales, the first indigenous Bolivian president in 500 years.
Almost 1,000 acequias in New Mexico and Colorado still operate under the communal principles first codified under the Islamic Law of Thirst, a doctrine transferred and subsumed into Christian Spanish law. Under the Law of Thirst, water management must prioritize dividing and distributing water for all living things that thirst—in other words, people, plants, and animals.
To make this work, the acequia system includes a process for conflict resolution (which sometimes is badly needed). As but one example, José tells me about a man who was so desperate for water that he pulled a gun on the fellow who was in line before him, and started shooting. After a SWAT team tried to arrest the troublemaker, a group of his fellow parciantes met with him, and lectured him about his communal responsibilities. Apparently, he has caused no trouble since then.
In February 2008, during the annual meeting of the Congreso de Acequias held in the crowded cafeteria of Centennial School in San Luis, more than 130 strangers descended on the town one day, most of them wearing baseball caps and cowboy boots. It turned out that leadership of the Ditch & Reservoir Company Alliance (DARCA), the Big Ag lobbying organization, had decided to hold their annual meeting in San Luis.
The Congreso members were taken aback, and a bit worried, until they took a second look. Many of their visitors were holding DARCA flyers saying “Learning From Others.” True to their word, they had come to learn about acequias, specifically its system of conflict resolution and ecological services. What brought them, apparently, was Colorado’s water crisis.
Such things were unheard of in a state where textbooks like “The History of Agriculture in Colorado,” published in 1926 by the Colorado State University Ag School, concluded that “under Spanish Americans, agriculture did not progress.” More recently, in response to claims by Peña and others for the state to officially recognize and restore their common usage water rights, a judge declared, “It’s time to bring these Mexicans into the twentieth century.”
In 2009, Peña and other Congreso members fought for HB 1233-09, a bill supporting acequias that passed the Colorado legislature and was then signed by Governor Bill Ritter. The bill officially recognized acequia institutions as one of the oldest forms of local self-governance in the Western U.S., and created conditions for their further development. Peña and other Congreso members are now working toward another round of legislation that, among other things, would prohibit the sale or transfer of water away from acequias.
“We went from people denigrating us and saying ‘acequias are just a bunch of Mexicans playing with water,’” Peña said, “to having one of the most influential rural business groups in the state coming to us so we could teach them how to save their own asses. That’s real progress.”
. The Acequia Institute conducts research and investigations on acequias and their benefits. Based in Colorado, founded by Devon Peña.
. The Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association in San Luis, Colorado
. The New Mexico Acequia Association is the largest Acequia association in the U.S., and New Mexico has the largest and oldest acequias in the country.
. The New Mexico Water Resources Management Institute studies the management of water resources, and includes a specialization in acequias.