By Connie Bransilver for NWNL
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)
Photographs by Connie Bransilver
Connie is a Founding Senior Fellow at International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP, NWNL’s Fiscal Sponsor). She recently returned to her native New Mexico from Naples, FL. Connie has been a professional nature photographer for 26 years, working in all seven continents. Her major work has been with rare lemurs in Madagascar, and human-wildlife interactions throughout Indonesia. See more of her work on her website.
Rio Grande north of Montano, New Mexico
Throughout the middle Rio Grande Basin acequias (ditches) and the public paths on either side, connect neighbors, knit communities, irrigate agricultural fields in season, and are now caught in a Gordian Knot of rights to scarce water. Their cultural and social significance for traditional Hispanic and tribal communities are deep. But after the mid 1800s, when the United States acquired the southwest from Mexico, the value of water, always scarce, ran counter to those values.
Understanding the centrality of the acequias in traditional agrarian life along the Rio Grande is understanding the dependence of Native American, Spanish and eventually, even Anglo lives in honoring, beneficially using, and exploiting the waters. Traditionally, acequias provided water for all uses, along with communal obligations for their care and maintenance. They endure because of “querencia,” meaning attachment to place and respect for the land, nature and the miraculous water that sustains body, mind and spirit. The questions of who, if anyone, owns the rights to what water usage has split villages and cultures, and clogged courtrooms for hundreds of years.
Acequia path dog-walker
Rio Grande headwaters lie in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. Passing through New Mexico the Rio Grande trickles along 1,885 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the Texas-Mexico border and making the Rio Grande the fourth longest river system in North America. Agua es Vida; so custody battles between Colorado, California, the Navajo Nation, pueblos along the river, burgeoning cities (like Albuquerque), and dams (like Elephant Butte holding water for Texas and Mexico) result in traditions butting against new laws and regulations, and fierce court battles without clear resolution. Demands grow as water becomes increasingly scarce.
Once alive and sacred, the Rio Grande formed the centerpiece of the Puebloan world. Wide, muddy, meandering, shifting braids of water, sometimes drying to a trickle, other times widening into a broad swamp (or cienega), taking homes and fields hostage, are now harnessed by technology, governed by an elaborate web of laws and uses for economic growth. Therein lies the essential conflict: competing claims challenging ownership of the flow.
Weir open for flow
The first Spaniards reached the middle Rio Grande around 1541, but did not find the gold they sought. Instead they found, and used, the natives who suffered at their hands until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. By 1692 Spain had sent armed soldiers, settlers (including, we now know, many Jewish “conversos” fleeing the Inquisition) and priests to tame the Indians. With Juan de Oñate and his men came the systems of acequias and land rights via massive land grants from the King and Queen of Spain to secure settlement. Foreign to the native populations living along the river, this Iberian mastery of controlling and distributing water was rooted in the Moorish occupation of Iberia, and also in ancient Rome and the Middle East. Native Americans had instead lived with the rhythms of the river, never aiming to master it. Those who survived, and whose pueblos remained viable, soon adopted the network of acequias to maintain their agriculture, still based on the golden triangle of corn, beans and squash that provide a nearly complete human diet while simultaneously regenerating the soil. Spanish recipients of huge land grants applied their own brand of subsistence agriculture. Both communities honored the land and the water.
Acequia, paths and adobe home
Spain yielded to Mexico, then Mexico lost this land to the United States in 1847 in the Mexican-American War. Then followed a wave of Anglos arriving from the East who sought fortune. They also brought a profound ignorance of the indigenous, irrigation-based culture that had sustained this fragile land for centuries.
Now the mighty Rio Grande’s life-giving waters are shrinking. Warmer winters yield less moisture, increasingly delivered as rain rather than snow in the headwaters. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that the San Juan Mountains are “at the bull’s eye of the future drought region.”1 While Anglo technocrats consider the acequias as anachronisms, the acequias have recently joined into a state-wide umbrella organization to push back against unrestricted transfers of water rights. In this part of the world, water rights, or the right to use water transfer separately from surface rights.
Weir releasing irrigation water
And what of the competing needs for water? Increasingly the courts are looking at Queen Isabella’s 1492 will, forming the basis of Pueblo, Spanish and Mexican claims to water. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the war with Mexico, acquired Nuevo Mexico and other lands in the West, and honored existing claims to water that were in place at the time. Those rights extend back to the 1492 will. Thus the claims to precious water in the Middle Rio Grande — between Cochiti Dam to the north and Elephant Butte Dam to the south, where half the state’s population resides — may ultimately be defined by that 500-year-old Spanish document.
In the meantime, my village, Los Ranchos, and all the adjacent villages along the Middle Rio Grande, share the pathways and rural culture of the web of acequias. Neighbors greet neighbors and work together to maintain the water flow – Hispanics, Anglos, Indians and all the mixtures among them. Questions about how the river can meet all the demands of its people might even be turned around. Maybe current residents value the agricultural ambiance and natural environment supported by the water and the acequia systems more than continued growth. A broader conversation on the value of water might begin now.
Rio Grande north of Montano from balloon
Reining in the Rio Grande – People, Land and Water, Fred M Phillips, G. Emlen Hall, Mary E. Black. University of New Mexico Press, 2011.
Iberian Origins of New Mexico’s Community Acequias, Jose A. Rivera, University of New Mexico and Thomas F. Glick, Boston University. NewMexicoHistory.org.
“Prior-appropriation water rights,” Wikipedia.
“New Mexico files counterclaim in water suit: Texas accused of mismanaging water, hurting farmers in NM,” Michael Coleman, Albuquerque Journal Washington Bureau, Albuquerque Journal, May 24, 2018.