Rabbitbrush Rambler: Moving water through acequias

It’s a short growing season for crops like corn and squash – only about 90 days or even less. Prayer and good luck might help.

I fondly remember once attending a beautiful procession, service, and potluck in honor of San Ysidro, the patron of farmers, on his feast day, April 4, at the pretty chapel at Los Fuertos along Vallejos Creek.  Besides prayer and luck, the crops needed water.

I have heard that a ditch was dug to take water from Vallejos Creek near San Luis about 1848, but we can rest assured that, at least, water was being distributed from Culebra Creek in 1852 by the settlers there. Later, this acequia was recorded by the State of Colorado as Ditch No. 1, the San Luis People’s Ditch with the date of 1861.

Above the plaza at Costilla, an acequia brought water to the Spanish-speaking settlers in that area, and across the Valley the first ditches were being dug in the Conejos area by 1855. Others existed, and a decade later the Silva Ditch with the state’s Decree No 5, was being dug to bring water from the Rio Grande itself east of Del Norte.

From the beginning of agriculture in arid and semi-arid regions, people have had to move water around by impounding and distributing it to places where needed, whether in the Old World or the New. In South America, Aztecs dug canals and ditches. In Central and North America prehistoric people in Arizona and around Mesa Verde, and Indians and Spaniards in Mexicol diverted runoff and streams to their crops through ditches.

The first diversions in Valley were not business enterprises with large canals such as we see now in he Valley. The acequias were, and still are, a system of ditches that was created and maintained with community effort. Cleaning and repairing the ditches was an annual ritual in spring. As long ago, a ditch rider, called the majordomo, attends to today’s scheduling, and the water users meet annually to make communal decisions. 

Originally in this region fields were divided into long strips each about 33 inches wide, a measure called a vara. Rows extended side by side. They could be very long, depending on the terrain as long as gravity and soil still permitted. It was advantageous to have one’s land close to the main gate and to have the plants near one’s own headgate, as water tended to become less and less the farther it had to travel. Fields may have different shapes and sizes today, but I recall seeing vestiges of the old narrow rows between San Luis and Chama when I was living down there in 1990.

Also, it was nice to have Indian slaves to help family members with the digging, cleaning, planting, hoeing, and harvesting. At first there were very few horses, only oxen and burros and wooden-wheeled carretas. Tushar’s book, “The People of ‘El Valle’,” says some wild horses were caught and traded, too.

Today there are about 70 farmers in Costilla County and about 50 in Conejos County using the acequia method of irrigated farming. Encouraging their activities are projects such as the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association at San Luis and the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area, besides several scholars and lawyers. In Costilla, Conejos, Huerfano, and Las Animas Counties, a group called Congreso de Acequias brought together the shared interests of acequia farmers, which included politics as well as economics and agriculture. Not all users of this method are Spanish-speaking today as growing healthy products has attracted others.

Acequias were long recognized in New Mexico’s legislation but not in Colorado’s until 2009, when Colorado’s legislature passed the Acequia Recognition Law. Edward Vigil of Fort Garland, then the state representative from the San Luis Valley (2009-2017), was instrumental in its passage.

No one actually owns the water in the San Luis Valley. People only own rights to use it for farming and other purposes, provided that it’s a beneficial use. But beneficially, acequias have been sustaining agriculture and a traditional way of life in the Valley for 165 years with no sign of abandoning it.