Acequias in the U.S. Southwest

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When the Spanish arrived in New Mexico in the 1500s, they brought with them the practice of an ancient irrigation system that has its roots in the Middle East. The word acequia comes from the classic Arabaci as-sāqiya, meaning “one who bears water” and also “the water conduit.”

Across the geography of New Mexico and other Southwestern states, acequias are channels that are dug to divert water from snow runoff and rivers to irrigate fields. The practice of maintaining acequias still continues today and it’s estimated that there are still between 800 and 1,000 of these irrigation channels in the state.

Photo of the Espada Acequia in San Antonio, Texas.
The Espada Acequia, or Espada Aqueduct, was built by Franciscan friars in 1731 in what is now San Antonio, Texas, United States. Photo: Carole M. Highsmith, public domain via LOC.gov.

Water flows through acequias from rivers through the force of gravity. At the start of an acequia irrigation system is a dam that was built to raise the level of the water so gravity could carry the water through the channels.

Every year, many families engage in the annual practice of maintaining the acequias by digging out dirt and vegetation to keep the channels flowing. Some channels are dirt pathways while other acequias have concrete beds.

Acequia in Tumacacori National Park, Arizona.  Photo: NPS.
Acequia with a compuerta in Tumacacori National Park, Arizona. Photo: NPS

Compuertas are diversion boxes that served as holding tanks for the water. Compuertas were also used to fill jars with water and as a lavandería, a place to wash clothes and dishes.

References

Hutchins, W. A. (1928). The community acequia: Its origin and development. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly31(3), 261-284. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30234998

Jaramillo, P. (n.d.). The History of the Acquecia. NRCS. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs144p2_067306.pdf

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