Just as the snow begins to melt on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Acequia de la Sierra flows with water yet again. It makes its way down the 13,000-foot peak by way of a hand-carved ditch, initially cut into the dense clay by the first 11 settler-colonists of Truchas, a community established on New Spain's northern frontier over 250 years ago. Their heirs continued to channel that water into communal and private plots for all things agriculture. And until the 1960s, when plumbing made its way to town, the acequia was the primary source of household water.
When the hippies arrived in Truchas in a ramshackle bus (still broken down in the furthest reaches of town), riding the wave of a national counterculture, they bathed freely and directly in the acequia. There was nothing like the wrath of my great-grandmother who was utterly—and I mean utterly—offended by anyone who might be so uncouth.
You see, to many, the acequia is sacred. On more than one occasion, I've heard it likened to a bloodline; having and maintaining water rights is, quite simply, being alive. It's that serious.
It's not uncommon to hear that water needs defending. From the calls of "Mni Wiconi" by Standing Rock's Water Protectors to the pronouncements that water scarcity, especially faced by those who live in the seven states in the path of an ever-dwindling Colorado River, is the new norm, water not only needs protection from contamination, but also over-allocation. This is true here in New Mexico, where the NMAA is growing a "movement of people of all ages and walks of life to defend and protect our precious water by resisting its commodification and contamination," in the words of its vision statement.
Paula Garcia, executive director of the association, described commodification in a take-from-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario, in which "any new use of water has to come at the expense of an old user." In other words, all water is already spoken for with "agricultural water rights transferring to industrial and urban uses." Therefore, to keep acequia water from simply getting channeled towards a neighboring city, "leaders [within the organization] are working to prevent transferring rights" according to the whims of market forces. In terms of contamination, Garcia and company are "challenging city neighbors who aren't treating sewage properly," as well as "actively holding the Los Alamos National Laboratory accountable for waste dumped in arroyos."
While I always associate New Mexico's viejitos with doing much of the acequia's annual maintenance (including re-digging the earthen channels and pulling reeds from blocking the passage of water), Garcia describes the association's membership as vast and diverse. There are what we might think of as the traditional users and irrigators, but today, those who use and thus benefit from acequias include farmers, scientists, accountants, engineers, administrators, foresters, EMTs, recent retirees and, Garcia says, a number of "newcomers who have embraced local culture."
We live in an era of multitaskers, and with that comes a realization that "farmers aren't just farmers anymore," but gente working across sectors. And though the base still maintains a strong presence of Hispano elders, it is also multiethnic and intergenerational. This goes to show that while many Nuevo Mexicanos express their place-based identity and querencia through their love of the acequia, others too have a stake in the health and continuance of these age-old waterways. They are humble, no doubt—but, like any inheritance, also invaluable.
Therefore, to continue their mission, the New Mexico Acequia Association has allies in academia, including anthropologists like Sylvia Rodriguez and Elise Trott and filmmakers such as Aracely Chapa, who are incorporating the study of acequia culture into their curriculum, as well as graduate students who are "aligning their research" with acequia management and history. "We've partnered with faculty in universities," Garcia explains, "to model trends and scenarios to see how policy shapes acequias into the future."
Acequias aren't from some bygone era, then; they are the future, too. And in that vein, NMAA continues to uphold its relevance by hosting the Esquelita de las Acequias, a series of encuentros that "creatively address challenges in local communities involving acequias." There is also a farmer training program to give young apprentices the knowledge needed to farm "high-value food for market."
To kick off the events on Acequia Day at the Capitol, expect a march to the Capital Building that's more like a "church procession," in Garcia's vision. Also planned are músicos to play guitars and sing, as well as a teatro comprised of amateur performers acting out skits about policy issues and poking fun at almost everyone. It culminates in a rally at the Roundhouse Rotunda, where youth speak about the significance of the acequia in their lives followed by short speeches recognizing local partners and leaders whose revitalization projects have worked to repair and improve community acequias.
The endgame is that, with stakeholders most invested in the health and continuance of acequias present, policy makers won't be able to ignore the value of New Mexico's waterways. Indeed, acequias are like all other forms of infrastructure, including schools, roads, and bridges. Along the lines of that logic, they deserve investment, too. To Garcia, both people and our beloved landscapes reap the benefits of longterm investment. So bring your pala (that's a shovel) and get ready to celebrate the beauty of water.