Deciphering the ditches

  • Book cover of "Acequia Culture"

  It is widely acknowledged that conventional approaches to economic development in the rural West, based on mineral extraction, industrial relocation, and capital-intensive tourism, have met with dismal results. Jobs may be created, but the benefits are inequitably distributed; growth may or may not occur, but poverty and underdevelopment persist, and in the process, the community loses control of the resources it needs for long-term sustainable economic activity. Acequia-based agriculture, however, promotes cultural tourism while supporting social policy values of self-reliance, anti-poverty, and grassroots democracy at work.

" José A. Rivera, Acequia Culture

The acequia system of ditch irrigation marks time in many of the small communities of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. The communal system and its seasonal rituals are a part of life for locals; to outsiders, however, the tangle of ancient decrees, modern laws and family relationships can make acequia politics almost indecipherable. There's hope, though. In a new book, Acequia Culture: Water, Land and Community in the Southwest, José Rivera lays out the history of the system, from its beginnings in Spanish water law to its role in the northern New Mexico "condo wars' of the 1990s. The book, which includes copies of original documents, is a valuable reference for those who want to learn more about the origins of the system and its place in Southwestern society. Rivera's academic style is not an easy read, but among the footnotes hides a strong case for the preservation of this ancient, but still vital, way of life.

*Michelle Nijhuis
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