Acequias in the Southwest U.S.

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

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.”

What are acequias?

Acequias are a traditional form of water management system used primarily in the arid regions of the U.S. Southwest, particularly in New Mexico, but also found in Colorado and Texas. Originating during the Spanish colonial period, these community-operated watercourses are rooted in ancient practices that can be traced back to the Moors in Spain and further back to the Romans and Arabs.

Where are acequias located?

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.


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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.

An acequia system typically involves a community-managed ditch or canal that diverts water from natural streams and rivers to irrigate agricultural fields. The community members, known as “parciantes,” share the responsibility for maintaining the acequia, and water rights are closely tied to participation in this communal work.

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.

Acequias serve not only as a means of irrigation but also play a crucial role in sustaining local ecosystems and community bonds. Acequias are recognized legally in states like New Mexico, which has established laws to protect and manage these systems, acknowledging their importance to the agricultural and cultural landscape.

This article was originally written on April 10, 2021 and has since been updated.

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://web.archive.org/web/20220212015505/https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs144p2_067306.pdf

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.