Acequia Culture

The Acequia or Ditch at SASC Alcalde
Acequia (Photo Taken by Alec Richards)

Acequias are the oldest water management institutions in the United States of European origin. These irrigation ditches, brought by the Spanish colonies, once supplied water to a large portion of the Southwestern United States. Today, around 800 acequias continue to feed the fields of Northern New Mexico! Each acequia has a mayordomo (ditch boss) and a commission, which oversee the delivery of water, settle disputes, and maintain the ditch. These ditches also help to restore aquifers and riparian areas. One of the few commons existing in the United States today, acequias are an essential part of identity and survival. The phrase, "Water is the lifeblood of the community", is often echoed throughout the high desert villages and towns in Northern New Mexico. Acequias are, in short, the living history of New Mexican heritage and agriculture.

The Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde is involved in several projects pertaining to acequias. Steve Guldan received the 2016 Jose Fernandez Chair to continue his research of acequias in New Mexico. One ongoing project characterizes the interactions between surface water and groundwater among acequias, irrigated fields, the source river, and the aquifer while asking, "To what extent do acequias and acequia-irrigated fields provide the benefits of aquifer recharge and delayed groundwater return flow to the river?" SASC is also part of a study that analyzes and reports on how acequia water systems link culture and nature as well as provide resilience in the face of climate and land-use change. This multi-year, interdisciplinary, and inter-institutional project is based upon research that bridges the fields of social science and natural science through System Dynamics. The intention of the project is to provide guidance for policy makers, academics, and the people who use the ditch.


Technical Publications

Water Task Force

The College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences is aggressively involved in finding solutions to current problems in New Mexico. The Water Task Force is an interdisciplinary team of researchers, scientists, and other experts that conduct commissioned studies and other work. This link leads to the Water Task Force research reports.

Master's Thesis

  • Master of Science Thesis, December 2009: (PDF)
    "Supporting Riparian Habitat with Acequia Irrigation Systems of the Northern Rio Grande Region". Master's thesis submitted by Ciara J. Cusack. It was hypothesized that non-native tree species were encroaching on riparian areas, and it was also hypothesized that acequias may be able to support riparian plantings of native riparian species. Vegetation surveys along the northern Rio Grande showed that non-native species have a high presence in the area, showing considerable potential for riparian restoration. Acequias' role in riparian restoration and sustainability was determined by planting cottonwood pole cuttings at varying distances from the acequia, at deep and shallow depths. Restoration of riparian areas is important for water conservation, water quality, wildlife habitat, and for reducing the spread of invasive plants. Results from this study illustrate the alternative benefits acequias provide to irrigated valleys, which will help in future management decisions regarding the region and the Rio Grande.


Additional NMSU Publications

NMSU News Center

  • NMSU Dean Flores Selected as fellow of Water for Food Global Institute, July 24, 2017
    New Mexico State University College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences Dean Rolando A. Flores has been selected as a Global Fellow of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska. Water management is one of the four pillars under which ACES has focused its mission of being an engine for economic and community development for the state of New Mexico. "Water plays a limiting role in the development of agriculture, thus, it is imperative to build collaborations with scientists and scholars in water utilization," he said. "Our professor Sam Fernald with the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute is already interacting with the Water for Food Institute. The idea is to develop more programs through our association with the institute."


Journal Articles & External Publications

  • Hydrology and Earth Systems Science, Vol. 9, 2015:
    "Linked Hydrologic and Social Systems that Support Resilience of Traditional Irrigation Communities". Southwestern US irrigated landscapes are facing upheaval due to water scarcity and land use conversion associated with climate change, population growth, and changing economics. In the traditionally irrigated valleys of northern New Mexico, these stresses, as well as instances of community longevity in the face of these stresses, are apparent. Human systems have interacted with hydrologic processes over the last 400 years in river-fed irrigated valleys to create linked systems. In this study, we ask if concurrent data from multiple disciplines could show that human-adapted hydrologic and socioeconomic systems have created conditions for resilience. Citation per request of Hydrology and Earth Systems Science: Fernald, A., Guldan, S., Boykin, K., Cibils, A., Gonzales, M., Hurd, B., Lopez, S., Ochoa, C., Ortiz, M., Rivera, J., Rodriguez, S., and Steele, C.: Linked hydrologic and social systems that support resilience of traditional irrigation communities, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 19, 293-307, doi:10.5194/hess-19-293-2015, 2015.
  • Hydrological Processes, Volume 25, Issue 10, Pages 1542-1557, 15 May 2011:
    "Alternative Climate Data Sources for Distributed Hydrological Modelling on a Daily Time Step". Two major criteria in choosing climate data for use in hydrological modelling are the period of record of the data set and the proximity of the collection platform(s) to the basin under study. Conventional data sets are derived from weather stations; however, in many cases there are no weather stations sufficiently close to a basin to be representative of climate conditions in that basin. In addition, it is often the case either that the period of record for the weather station(s) does not cover the period of the proposed simulation or that there are gaps in the data. Therefore, the objectives of this study are to investigate alternative climate data sources for use in hydrological modelling and to develop a protocol for creating hydrological data sets that are spatially and temporally harmonized. **Abstract only linked**
  • Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education, Issue 137, September 2007:
    "Land Use Change Impacts on Acequia Water Resources in Northern New Mexico". In northern New Mexico, the acequia water use regime and attendant acequia-related cultural values are at particular risk due to increasing urbanization pressures and the potential impacts on actual water use, water quality, and riparian vegetation along the Rio Grande and irrigation ditches (Rivera 1998; New Mexico Acequia Association 2006 ). In the research we present in this paper, we employ Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing, and aerial photography interpretation techniques to create a series of land use maps to assess the impacts of land use change on critical water resources and local communities along the Alcalde Reach of the Upper Rio Grande Basin.
  • Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, Issue 147, p. 49- 62, March 2012:
    "Rural Community Perspectives on Preparedness and Adaptation to Climate-Change and Demographic Pressure" . This study investigates local-scale adaptation and long-run capacity building in acequia communities in Northern New Mexico, where there is a long record of resilience and adaptive capacity spanning more than four centuries. These communities may be particularly vulnerable to current stresses from population growth, changing community composition, and projections of water scarcity that are expected to accompany long-run climatic changes. This paper uses a survey approach to explore factors and community characteristics that contribute to community adaptation, the level and extent of community preparedness, and the preferred community actions to cope with stresses and disturbances.
  • Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, Issue 152, p. 49- 54, December 2013:
    "Collaborative Community Hydrology Research in Northern New Mexico". In New Mexico, increasing demand for water, combined with limited supplies and periodic drought, is placing additional stress on traditional acequia communities. Research on the hydrology of acequia agriculture in northern New Mexico has been carried out in three communities and their associated watersheds and irrigated valleys. Critical to the effort has been the participation of the acequias and individual farmers, ranchers, and other community member stakeholders. Participation in hydrology research included assistance in altering flows in acequias, and access to private property and wells, critical to obtain ground and surface water measurements. Further research that integrated hydrologic data with ecosystem, landuse, economics, and sociocultural data, via development of a system dynamics model, required community member participation through surveys, interviews, and workshops to develop, calibrate and refine the model.
  • Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, Issue 152, p. 69-78, December 2013:
    "Hydrologic Connectivity of Head Waters and Floodplains in a Semi-Arid Watershed". Hydrologic connectivity can be important when assessing the role of water availability and distribution in sustaining different natural processes and human activities in a given landscape. We present a study that served as one of five case studies for an interdisciplinary modeling course. The main objectives of the study presented are: 1) to characterize the hydrologic connectivity between the uplands and the irrigated valley and; 2) to set the foundations for understanding the connections between hydrology and complementary disciplines of ecology, rangeland management, and system dynamics modeling in a semiarid watershed in the southwestern United States. Study results show a strong hydrologic connectivity between surface and groundwater in the lower agricultural valley that follows a seasonal pattern, driven primarily by irrigation contributions to the shallow aquifer.
  • Journal of Irrigation and Drainage Engineering, December 2010:
    "River Hydrograph Retransmission Functions of Irrigated Valley Surface Water-Groundwater Interactions". Storage and release functions of western U.S. traditional river valley irrigation systems may counteract early and rapid spring river runoff associated with climate variation. Along the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico, we instrumented a 20-km-long irrigated valley to measure water balance components from 2005 to 2007. Hydrologic processes of the system were incorporated into a system dynamics model to test scenarios of changed water use. The modeled simulations showed that the coupled surface water irrigation system and shallow aquifer act together to store water underground and then release it to the river, effectively retransmitting river flow until later in the year. Water use conversion to non-irrigation purposes and reduced seepage from canals and fields will likely result in higher spring runoff and lower fall and winter river flow.
  • Journal of Sustainable Agriculture:
    "Hydrologic, Riparian, and Agroecosystem Functions of Traditional Acequia Irrigation Systems". Traditional cultures in arid landscapes of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico developed irrigation systems to irrigate floodplain valleys along streams and rivers. Many of these traditional irrigation systems, referred to as acequias, continue to be used today. Population growth in the region is creating pressures to convert agricultural land and irrigation water to urban and other uses. Unique hydrologic features of the acequia systems suggest that, beyond providing crop irrigation, they may provide additional valuable hydrologic, riparian, and agroecosystem functions worth maintaining.
  • Transactions of the ASABE, Vol. 50 No. 1:
    "Deep Percolation and Its Effects on Shallow Groundwater Level Rise Following Flood Irrigation". Deep percolation (DP) from irrigation may be important for groundwater recharge in irrigated agricultural river corridors of arid regions, yet few studies of this physiographic setting have characterized both percolation and its direct effects on groundwater levels. The objectives of our study in a sandy loam, flood-irrigated, alfalfa-grass field in northern New Mexico were to (1) compare DP below the 1 m effective root zone based on water balance method (WBM) and Root Zone Water Quality Model (RZWQM) simulations, and (2) characterize effects of DP on shallow groundwater levels.
  • Reviews in Fisheries Science, Vol. 14 , 2006:
    "Surface Water-Groundwater Interactions Between Irrigation Ditches, Alluvial Aquifers, and Streams". Improved descriptions of surface water-groundwater interactions are required for enhanced water resource management in irrigated areas of the western U.S. We are conducting a research project to determine surface water-groundwater interaction effects on hydrologic budgets and water quality along the upper Rio Grande in New Mexico. This article reports on the initial phase of the project to ascertain the effects of unlined irrigation ditch seepage on shallow groundwater at the Alcalde Science Center in north-central New Mexico.
  • Rural Connections, May 2010: "Hydrological Impacts Traditional Community Irrigation Systems New Mexico"
    This article compiles recent research results to describe new perspectives on hydrology of traditional community irrigation systems (Figure 1). In New Mexico, these irrigation systems have been in use for centuries, and at least 800 operating ditches exist in the state (OSE, 1991). For the most part, these are unlined earthen canals and convey water to fields that are flood irrigated. Studies have shown that these two aspects can result in significant amounts of water that seep out of the bed and banks of the ditch and below root zones in crop fields, particularly if ditches and fields are composed of sandy or coarse soils (Ochoa et al., 2007). Many community ditch irrigators and residents, however, recognize benefits from this seepage: recharging groundwater, keeping shallow wells functioning, and supporting riparian vegetation along the ditches and fields.
  • Sustainability, Vol. 4, Issue 11, 2012:
    "Modeling Sustainability of Water, Environment, Livelihood, and Culture in Traditional Irrigation Communities and Their Linked Watersheds". Acequias have survived periods of drought and external shocks from changing economics, demographics, and resource uses. Now, climate change and urbanization threaten water availability, ecosystem functions, and the acequia communities themselves. Do past adaptive practices hold the key to future sustainability, or are new strategies required? To explore this issue the authors translated disciplinary understanding into a uniform format of causal loop diagrams to conceptualize the subsystems of the entire acequia-based human-natural system.
  • Vadose Zone Journal, Vol. 8, No. 2, May 2009:
    "Water Movement through a Shallow Vadose Zone: A Field Irrigation Experiment". Surface irrigation water percolating below the crop rooting zone is important for groundwater recharge in agricultural areas overlying shallow aquifers. The objective of this study was to characterize water movement through the shallow vadose zone following surface irrigation. Two infiltration plots were installed in each of three predominant local soil types. Plots were instrumented to measure soil water content and shallow groundwater level. Data were used to calculate water infiltration, velocity of propagation of the wetting front, water fluxes, and water level response following irrigation.
  • Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water, Volume 2, Issue 5, pages 559- 575, September/October 2015:
    "A Framework for Assessing Ecosystem Services in Acequia Irrigation Communities of the Upper Rio Grande Watershed". "What we need to do is inventory the different types of agricultural landscapes and bring to light the typical rural architecture, such as the acequias and desagues (irrigation supply canals and excess water drains). We need to find ways of conserving the landscape, including the flora and fauna as well as the role the agricultural landscape has played in the evolution of the surrounding area. Before we abandon the past (flood irrigation) for the contemporary (drip irrigation), we need a thorough analysis of the pros and cons of each system for the whole cultural landscape. The future may be one where the old and new learn to coexist, such as the hoe with the plow." (Arellano, 2014, p. 204). **Abstract only linked**


Additional Links

  • New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute
    The New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute is located in Las Cruces, New Mexico at New Mexico State University. The institute funds research conducted by faculty and students from universities across the state to address water problems critical to New Mexico and the Southwest. The institute also participates in joint efforts to solve water-related problems along the U.S./Mexico border. Through its support of research and its interaction and cooperation with other water resources entities, the institute continuously strives to alleviate water problems, working toward ensuring an ample supply of high quality water for future generations.