Acequias are an important part of the physical and cultural landscape of northern and central New Mexico. For those who are not familiar with them, acequias are community-operated irrigation canals that were originally constructed in New Mexico over 400 years ago by the Spaniards – who had adopted the system from the Arabs during their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. Our group was lucky enough to be able to attend the annual Celebrando las Acequias conference, organized and sponsored by the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University (Burbank, CA). The three day event is held in the tiny hamlet of Dixon, NM, and consists of a series of public discussions and presentations about the role that acequias play in the community. The theme of this year’s conference was Water + Resilience, and the numerous speakers covered topics ranging from architecture and art to agriculture and watershed management.
Brad Lancaster, a permaculture designer and consultant from Tucson, AZ, discussed arid region water harvesting techniques that can increase the resilience of both ecological and human communities. Dr. Jose Rivera, a professor of community and regional planning at UNM, described the culture of ayuda mutua, or mutual aid societies, in Northern New Mexico. Dr. Steven Guldan, Director of the NMSU Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde, presented data showing how the regional aquifer is recharged by acequia flood irrigation techniques. Dr. Lois Ellen Frank, a chef, author, photographer and native foods historian, illustrated the health benefits of eating traditional heirloom foods. Perhaps the highlight of the event was the Saturday evening spent listening to local musicians Chuy Martinez and Otilio Ruiz, Cipriano Vigil, and Los Coyotes de Canoncito, all performing songs about New Mexico’s acequia culture.
After the Celebrando event wrapped up on Sunday afternoon, we headed over to the NMSU Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde to see what Steve Guldan and his crew were up to. The farm lies along the east bank of the Rio Grande, and has acequia water rights. It is dedicated to research that benefits small family-run farms in north-central New Mexico. Steve showed us around the Center’s extensive fields where variety trials of profitable crops such as lavender, strawberries, chiles, grapes and stone fruit were underway.
On our way back to Taos, the group stopped at the Las Trampas Acequia, where there is a beautiful example of a canoa, a waterway made of a hollowed-out log that carries the acequia water over an arroyo.