Acequias: A thousand year old irrigation story
Thousands of miles away, over an ocean, a sea and a mountain or two, a man stands with his azada, a digging tool, waiting for the water.
He waits patiently, knowing the water will flow down the Acequia Encinilla in its own time, at its own pace, through the channel it has run for a thousand years. The man who pulls from the Encinilla must now earn it for there is no longer an acequiero to manage the water’s path. His palms will bleed from the spiky chestnut shells and he will lose his footing on the eroded ditch edge, nearly tumbling hundreds of feet into the valley below.
When the head gates of the Río Lanjarón open, they feed the Encinilla irrigation system after spilling into the Acequia Alta and before filling the Acequia Mescarina. Over the generations, the Encinilla provided water to about 50 families sustaining in the Las Alpujarras, a mountain range over looking the Mediterranean Sea onto African shores. It gave their olive, orange and lemon trees fruits, their grape vines spring blooms and their goats and sheep refreshment after roaming the herb filled countryside on a piping August afternoon.
Today, the four-mile Encinilla provides about six families with water, the Río Lanjarón provides water to the entirety of Spain through eight ounce plastic bottles and an annual water festival draws hundreds to the village of Lanjarón to celebrate nature’s blessings.
On the southeastern corner of the San Luis Valley, they wait for the water to tumble down the steep crests of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and fill the Vallejos Ditch, among others. The water flows into the veins of land so rich in memories of potatoes, cauliflower, bolita beans and the animals needed to plough and feast upon under a sinking harvest sunset. The center pivot has no place in these fields today, nor does it on the terraced dry land mountains of the old world.
During the eighth century, the Moors brought the acequia - an Arabic word pronounced a-TH-equia - system to Spain under Hakam II’s reign. When the Spanish conquered South America centuries later, they introduced the system in similar landscapes eventually as far north as the American Southwest. In the late 1500s, the Spanish explorers found the northern New Mexico Pueblo Indians had independently developed a similar ditch irrigation system, which they improved with their horses and advanced tools.
Gravity and velocity pull the water through the land and are the two main system elements. Acequias move water through the crop fields and usually continue to flow back into larger bodies of water. The success of the system depends on the community and, if possible, the leadership of an acequia manager known as an acequiero in Spain or a mayordomo in the southwest. The ditches must be cleaned in the spring to remove eroded soil and organic materials and water must be delegated through land use, land size and water availability. Constant maintenance and surveillance is a necessity during peak irrigation months.
Acequias do not only preserve history, they preserve the land that, in turn, preserves the people. If the acequia is still a primarily earthen system, it seeps water back into the ground and follows the land’s natural contours. Since acequia maintenance requires hands, not machines, the community must work together to sustain the irrigation channels.
The ancient irrigation practice, however, is struggling to survive for many reasons in the Valley and abroad. Drought makes the systems obsolete and technology replaces manual labors. The children raised on the waters are interested in other things because reporting time spent as a mayordomo on a resume does not open gates in the modern world. In spite of the challenges, there are local efforts to give the modern world an opportunity to conserve an international history.
In 2004, the Natural Resources Conservation Service began offering services to Valley acequia/vaca strip farmers. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides 50 percent of individual project funding and the acequia/vara strip farming program provides a minimum of 25 percent, leaving farmers with a quarter or less to pay out of pocket to implement conservation practices.
San Luis farmer Rose Medina, 74, took advantage of these practices and brought statewide attention to the acequia/vara strip farming program. She was named the 2011 Colorado Association of Conservation Districts Small Acreage Landowner of the Year. The program gave her the tools to keep her alfalfa fields through new fencing and 10 cement irrigation structures that allow her to control the acequia’s flow. Before the cement structures were installed, she was using tarps to stop the water and having to walk miles a day. At her age, it was becoming nearly impossible, almost like living without water and the food it provides.
While Medina waits at the gates of the Vallejos Ditch keeping acequia traditions alive, the man with the azada in his hand thousands of miles away does the same at the gates of the Encinilla and he says, “La vida de las montañas. Mucho agua. Es bonita.”
Lauren Krizansky is a reporter for the Valley Courier. She helped managed the Acequia Encinilla above Lanjarón, Spain through four seasons and worked with other acequias in the country’s southern region. Her background includes agroecological theory and practice in the United States, Scandinavia and southern Europe.