For several hundred years before the United States of America became the custodian of the public lands roundabout, the inhabitants of what is now northern New Mexico managed to thrive in their valleys nestled high in the Rockies, thanks in part to a thriving communal system of water ditches and grazing lands. High Country News has a wonderful article and photo essay on the acequia system and culture, which persist to this day. (There’s also a wonderful interview with photographer Sharon Stewart to go with it.)
The origins of the acequia are a bit mysterious. It is said that along with establishing the church, they were among the first things built by the Spanish settlers when they migrated up from Mexico around the time that the English were founding Jamestown in Virginia. They seem to combine the irrigation technology and organization the Moors perfected in Spain during their 600-year reign and native American irrigation. What’s remarkable about them to a visitor is how a few hundred locals could build and maintain such a sophisticated system to distribute water to where it’s needed. In these days where one political party is continually advocating defunding and dismantling the government and public enterprises, the alternative requires a lot of work and that people stay local and do hard work to keep up their corner of the earth.
The intersection of water and faith is also interesting. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but the only other non-public irrigation works in the West were the irrigation systems built by the Mormons in Arizona and Utah.
The communal grazing lands – known as ejidos – that were also a foundation of these communities didn’t survive the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (which ended the Mexican War in 1848) and its aftermath. Much of these lands were stripped from locals outright, and rights to others passed to anglo hands thanks to the imposition of fees for grazing rights, a serious challenge in the largely cash-less economy in the area at the time (a story told wonderfully in novel in The Magic Journey by John Nichols). Just as happened with the many native cultures that were progressively run off their lands by the incoming Europeans, we didn’t figure out until the late 20th century how to legally create communal spaces free of private ownership and speculation. Even the acequias nearly went dry water rights speculation in the 1990s, but fortunately they have survived.