I work for a ditch company in SW Colorado as their mayordomo (butler or servant) and when I find a piece such as this I like to share it with the users so they might taste the flavor, sense of cooperation and social significance of the acequia. Rōbert
Joe Mondragón “tugged on his irrigation boots, flung a shovel into hispickup and … opened the Roybal ditch headgate,” diverting water from Indian Creek into his parents’ old bean field in northern New Mexico—-sparking a pitched battle between farmers with deep ties to the land and newly arrived developers bent on big bucks.
So goes the pivotal moment in the popular 1974 novel by John Nichols that in 1988 Robert Redford made into a movie, The Milagro Beanﬁeld War, set in a ﬁctional small town called Milagro (“Miracle”). What’s real in the tale is the ditch: It’s an acequia, an irrigation system upon which the Mondragón family farm depends and whose technology and methods of community water distribution go back all the way to early civilizations in the Middle East, speciﬁcally to al-Andalus, Muslim Spain. Indeed, during a week spent in New Mexico to report on its acequia heritage, I found myself imagining what it would be like to wear Mondragón’s boots.
When I told people at home in Washington, D.C., that I was going to New Mexico to investigate acequias, I had to spell out the word and pronounce it slowly, “ah-SIH-kee-ah.” No one knew what I was talking about. At the other extreme was the innkeeper at the Dreamcatcher B&B in Taos, New Mexico, who informed me without missing a beat, “There’s an acequia right behind your room” and then took me out for a view. The one immutable truth I learned is that there’s no middle ground when it comes to acequias: People either have no idea what you’re talking about or they’re passionate about them.
Derived from the Arabic as-saqiya (“that which gives water”), acequias are gravity-ﬂow irrigation ditches that evolved over 10,000 years in the arid regions of the Middle East. Especially from the ninth through the 16th century, control of the movement of water—hydrology—was one of the most important technologies developed from Mesopotamia and Persia to Arabia, North Africa and Spain. When the Spanish colonized the New World, they brought with them their acequia technology. (Acequias have subterranean cousins from the same regions, known variously as qanats or falajs.)