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Know the West

Spring-cleaning the acequia: A photo essay


On an April morning in northern New Mexico's upper Pecos Valley, before the sun lit the packed dirt streets of El Cerrito, Ricardo Patricio Quintana walked the irrigation ditch. He began above the first compuerta, a scrap-wood gate that lets water into one family's field. Every six feet, he scuffed a mark in the dry mud. Each villager who came to work that day would claim a space between the marks, scraping sediment from the bottom and cutting the grass that hung over the edge with long, vertical shovel strokes. Trimming the beard, Quintana called it: Cortale la barba.

This was his first year as mayordomo, the keeper of the village's acequia, or communal irrigation system. The last mayordomo, a member of the Aragon family, was voted out. Few Aragons came to clean the ditch this year. They and the Quintanas had been the first families to settle El Cerrito, and the trouble between them began long ago: A fence post was moved, there was a fistfight. No one talked openly about it. Quintana only hoped to do a good job, he said. The day before, he'd pulled poison ivy from the ditch but was careless with the berries; a patch on his underarm was puckered and red.

In 1930, when hundreds farmed the small tracts along the Pecos River, the mayordomo rationed water carefully. Now the acequia feeds no more than eight families. By the '50s, many locals had outgrown their meager acreage. Some farmed the mesa; others went north to work in a steel mill, and the acequia was neglected for some time. Then in the '70s, a few villagers decided to clean it. For six days, they lifted boulders and disassembled beaver dams from the diversion to the last compuerta, nearly two miles in length. The next year, remembering the arduous work, they called relatives to help. Dozens came, and by noon on the first day, the ditch was clean and they ate tamales on the lawn. Every year after, they returned to work.

The limpia had already begun when I arrived in El Cerrito. There was no sign to the village, only a long, rutted road an hour east of Santa Fe that dropped from a juniper-strewn mesa into an edenic valley. On the west bank of the Pecos River sat the village, a cluster of cracking adobes, farm equipment, a few trailers. Kids smoked cigarettes in bushes along the ditch. A baby played on the gravel wash. At the end of a line of some 50 workers, Joe Quintana stood shaking his head at a few young volunteers who had wandered off, students of his at a nearby college. "Look at them," he said. "They're lost." He traced over their work with his shovel, smoothing the acequia's mud bottom.

When Spaniards colonized northern New Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries, in each new settlement, by royal decree, they built first a church and then an acequia. Native Americans already irrigated with ditches, but the Spanish established a system of water governance. There are fewer than 1,000 acequias in the Southwest now, and many more have dried up. Some villages became ghost towns; others sold their water rights to cities. But El Cerrito held onto its acequia even as its population dwindled. I asked a worker why so many people tended the ditch when so few used its water. "We must keep moving the water onto the land," he said. With the water, they grew corn and beans; it was the village's lifeblood. El agua es la vida.

That afternoon, workers washed dust from their throats with beer and punch. A band played mariachi music, and a young boy was the first to dance. Metal porches creaked in the wind; nails rattled loose. By the river, Rick Quintana hammered open a collapsed culvert. Another villager, patching a hole in his roof, spotted an old friend. "Hipolito, como está amigo?" He came down and joined the man for a drink.