DIXON, N.M. - On a thunderous afternoon in this unusually wet New Mexico summer, likely the world's only flaming red-headed, Sicilian-Danish acequia mayordoma (that's long for ditch boss) is quite literally in over her head.
"This ... eeeeyunk!... is the ... augghgh!
... hard part," grunts Marie Coburn, as she goes upside-down into
the rushing Rio Embudo to remove a gangly cottonwood branch. Her
hiking boots and khaki pants are soaked. Rivulets of sweat ski off
her freckled nose.
For roughly $200 every two
weeks, Coburn has the unenviable task of making sure that all 98
farmers on her ditch get the water they are entitled to. She is
thrilled the Rio Embudo is fat these days, because that means her
acequia and eight other historic irrigation ditches, in and around
the village of Dixon, should be flowing nicely, making farmers,
including her parciantes, happy.
But with a full
river comes a flotilla of discarded junk, from cantaloupes to
condoms, that can clog the 250-year-old Acequia del Llano. "I found
four or five dead skunks once," Coburn says as she fishes out an
empty 12-pack carton of Bud Light. "Don't know for sure who did it,
but I have an idea."
There was a time when
Coburn wouldn't have had a clue. A former house painter and cabaret
singer from Oakland, Coburn came to Dixon about 12 years ago with
no experience with New Mexico's land, water or rural farm
After renting for a while, she restored a
roomy old adobe house on three acres in the heart of Dixon, which
is about 20 miles south of Taos, and started growing glove
amaranth, zinnia, cockscomb, yarrow and other flowers. Out of
these, she makes both traditional and whimsical dried-floral
arrangements that she sells at the Santa Fe Farmer's
None of this qualified her to run an
acequia, but when she showed a willingness to learn about the
acequia culture and to work hard on the ditch's annual spring
cleaning and repair, her fellow parciantes saw her
Well, that's the tourist version. "I'm
the mayordoma," Coburn laughs, "because I said I'd do it."
Today, Coburn knows her acequia like an extended
family. "Let's see, there's Blanco, Ortega, Archuleta, Arellano,
Salazar, Atencio, Zamora, Valdez, Romero, Ortiz ... I've got two
men who raise alfalfa, some gardeners, a man with an apple orchard
who sells in Texas, a winery ... and, of course, there's Modesto
Blanco. He's a sweet older man who is very proud of his peas. He'll
go to the lumberyard every Friday and sell his peas."
Coburn agrees it might seem odd that her
neighbors, some of whom are fifth- and sixth-generation New
Mexicans, would entrust the ditch's management to a gringa
newcomer. "But I think it's because I don't know about all the old
family wars and feuds," she says. "I just get the water to people.
I don't worry about what somebody's grandfather said to mine 60
More respect than
Cruising about in her weathered Toyota
truck, loyal canines Peach and Cheyenne bouncing in the back,
Coburn is a fixture in the community. She is entitled by law to go
anywhere the ditch does, and spends several afternoons a week
darting on and off State Highway 75 checking drains and
As the ditch meanders north under the
highway, Coburn heads down a dirt road into the rutted backyard
driveway of a family that has a small orchard and raises sheep. The
dogs skitter out the bed of the truck and follow us through
head-high weeds and chamisa. Suddenly we are standing upon the
Acequia del Llano, some three feet wide and one foot deep, dug by
Spanish settlers (and probably Indian slave labor) over two
Stopping at a culvert, Coburn
reaches into the weeds and pulls out an eight-foot-long cottonwood
branch. She lowers the branch into the water and uses it like a
dipstick to measure the water level. When she pulls it out, she can
see that her brush clearing earlier at the Embudo headgate has the
water level back to perfect. Coburn is highly pleased. Her
parciantes will get all the water they need and still return plenty
to the river.
Much like an umpire, if Coburn does
her job perfectly, hardly anyone notices, but if she screws up even
slightly, the whole town seems to know. There is no complicated
metering system or acre-feet calculation. Each parciante gets some
percentage of a pion - the amount of water needed to irrigate one's
land for one day. Thus, a landowner might be referred to as a
half-pion or two-pion parciante. It works on the honor system and
the nosiness of neighbors.
Once, during heavy
rains, Coburn made a half-dozen trips in 36 hours to the Embudo dam
just to clear out debris from the acequia
"I think she does a good job," says
Glen Martinez, who grows gourds and vegetables at the bottom of
Coburn's ditch. "There's a lot of jealousy and crybabies on a
ditch, but she's easy to work with. They respect a lady more than a
This summer, everyone got the water they
needed. But in dry years, like 1995, water rationing meant some
users at the bottom of the acequia, regardless of the seniority of
their water rights, didn't get their full
"Back in "95 was the first week of my
first year and I didn't know anybody," Coburn sighs. "I'd have to
go to people and say, "I've got good news and bad news. The good
news is that you will get water. The bad news is that you can only
use the water between 2 and 2:45 in the morning." People would be
calling me, saying, "It's my time! It's my time! And there's no
water!" It literally took eight hours for the water to get from the
headgate to the last guy on the ditch."
a perfect system by any means, but it is one that has endured
despite wars, modern plumbing, local indifference, the automobile,
urban yuppie infestation, droughts and central pivot irrigation.
And, of course, with the care of a few good mayordomos.