Potrero Ditch, an acequia, passing near the front of El Santuario de Chimayo

An acequia (Spanish: [aˈθekja]) or séquia (Catalan: [ˈsɛkia]) is a community-operated watercourse used in Spain and former Spanish colonies in the Americas for irrigation. Acequias are found in parts of Spain, the Andes, northern Mexico, and the modern-day American Southwest (northern New Mexico and southern Colorado).

Scholars describe acequias as "technological systems that are designed, maintained, and operated to meet a variety of productive goals, social services, and health needs, with the practice of irrigated agriculture being of paramount importance."[1] In the United States, the oldest acequias were established more than 400 years ago by Spanish colonizers. The traditional form of governance over acequias is the oldest form of European resource management still alive in the United States today.[2]

Acequias are filled by snow melt and rain to water orchards, gardens, and other agricultural fields. Other than watering crops, acequias have deep cultural significance for many Indigenous and Native communities in New Mexico and Colorado.


Main acequia, Vallongas, Elche, Valencia, Spain (May 2012)

The Spanish word acequia (and the Catalan word séquia) originate from Arabic word al-sāqiyah (الساقیة)[2] which has more than one meaning: "the water conduit" or "one that bears water" as well as 'bartender' (from ‏سَقَىsaqā, "to give water, drink"), and also refers to a type of water wheel.


Traditionally, the Spanish acequias have been associated with the Arab colonization of the Iberian peninsula; however the most likely hypothesis is that they improved on irrigation systems that already existed since Roman times, or even before.[3] These ways of agricultural planning and colonization strategies come from the vast amount of cultural influences contributing to Spanish technology and governance. Likely the most meaningful stemmed from the Arabs that ruled parts of Spain for as long as eight centuries. Their ways of life influenced the Spanish and changed the way agriculture was done in Spain.[2]

Acequias were later adopted by the Spanish and Portuguese (levadas on Madeira Island) and were utilized throughout their own colonies. Similar structures already existed in places such as Mendoza and San Juan, Argentina where acequias today run along both sides of the city streets. However, these acequias were originally dug by the Indigenous Huarpes long before the arrival of the Spanish. The introduction of acequias by the Muslims allowed for more agricultural diversity, with crops such as sugar cane and citrus fruits introduced.[4] The system of the acequia has changed over time to avoid incidents of the resource from being overused or under-maintained.[5]

The Acequia Madre (Mother Ditch), Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 2022

Usage in the American Southwest

In the United States, the oldest acequias were established more than 400 years ago by Spanish colonizers. Many acequias continue to provide a primary source of water for farming and ranching, including the region of northern New Mexico[6][7] and south central Colorado known as the Upper Rio Grande watershed or Rio Arriba.[8] This type of governance over acequias is to date the oldest depiction of European resource management still alive in the United States today.[2]


Acequias are gravity chutes, similar in concept to flumes. Some acequias are conveyed through pipes or aqueducts, of modern fabrication or decades or centuries old (see transvasement). For the system to function properly the channel must have a good gradient to maintain the flow of water.[4]

When rainfall and snowmelt start to flow it is carried into the Acequi Madre and through the connecting channels throughout parts of New Mexico. Acequias have several components that control the transport of water:

  1. compuertas (headgates)- these gates open and close to allow water to flow through the channel
  2. canoas (canoes)- log flumes that transport water across intersecting creeks and streams
  3. sangrías (vessels)- lateral ditches cut perpendicular from the main canal to irrigate individual parcels of land
  4. desagüe (draining channel)- carries surplus water back to the stream source[9]

Researchers affiliated with the Rio Grande Bioregions Project at Colorado College initiated a pioneering collaborative, farmer-led, and interdisciplinary study of Colorado and New Mexico acequias in 1995–99. Among the most significant findings of this study was that the acequia farms provide vital ecosystem and economic base services to the regions in which they are located. One study, as reported in Peña, Boyce & Shelley (2003), found that acequia agroecosystems promote soil conservation and soil formation, provide terrestrial wildlife habitat and movement corridors. They also protect water quality and fish habitat, promote the conservation of domesticated biodiversity of land race heirloom crops, and encourage the maintenance of a strong land and water ethic and sense of place, among other ecological and economic base values. This pioneering research on acequia ecosystem services, led by environmental anthropologist Devon G. Peña, has more recently been confirmed in other studies, e.g. Fernald, Baker & Guldan (2007), Fernald et al. (2010), Fernald et al. (2015), Raheem et al. (2015).[10]

Governance in New Mexico

Known among water users simply as "the Acequia", various legal entities embody the community associations, or acequia associations, that govern members' water usage, depending on local precedents and traditions. An acequia organization often must include commissioners and a majordomo who administers usage of water from a ditch, regulating which holders of water rights can release water to their fields on which days. In New Mexico, by state statute, acequias as registered bodies must have three commissioners and a mayordomo. Irrigation and conservation districts typically have their own version of mayordomos, usually referred to as "ditch riders" by members of the districts.[11]

Acequias in New Mexico and Colorado have successfully developed and implemented changes in state water laws to accommodate the unique norms, customs, and practices of the acequia systems. But the communal owners of the acequias in New Mexico are receiving hard economic pushes from land developers and current inflation that are pushing them to consider selling the valued acequia.[5] The customary law of the acequia is older than and at variance with the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation, and the statutes promulgating acequia water law represent a rare instance of water pluralism in the context of Western water law in the United States (see Hicks & Peña (2003)). For example, the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation is based on the principle of "first in use, first in right", while acequia norms incorporate not just priority but principles of equity and fairness. This is evident in the fact that Prior Appropriation considers water to be a commodity owned by private individuals while acequia systems treat water as a community resource that irrigators have a shared right to use, manage, and protect. The concept of a shared responsibility natural resources reflects the beliefs stemming from the Spanish and Indigenous people who brought the acequia to the U.S. The plethora of cultural behaviors and values that created acequia communities still exist in the United States.[2]

While prior doctrines allow for water to be sold away from the basin of origin, the acequia system prohibits the transference of water from the watershed in which it is situated and thus considers water as an "asset-in-place". The Prior regime is based on a governance regime in which the members of a mutual ditch company will vote based on their proportional ownership of shares so that larger farmers have more votes. In contrast, the acequia system follows a "one farmer, one vote" system that has led researchers to consider this a form of "water democracy".[8][10]

Acequia law also requires that all persons with irrigation rights participate in the annual maintenance of the community ditch including the annual spring time ditch cleanup known as the limpieza y saca de acequia.[12]


See also



Works cited

Further reading