Centuries-old irrigation system shows how to manage scarce water

It’s spring again, the time of year—for the 300th time in some instances—when New Mexico communities come together to clean the acequias, irrigation channels that carry snowmelt from the mountains to newly tilled farm fields. Each annual cleaning is one more demonstration that at least here, in these close-knit communities arrayed across arid and rugged rangeland, it’s possible for people to share scarce resources to achieve a common goal—in this case, making sure everyone in the group has enough water.

Acequias are mutually managed, irrigation channels that have been in continuous operation in the arid American Southwest since before the formation of the United States. This communal water system traces its roots to the Spanish conquistadors, who brought their traditions to the territory in the 1600s, and who themselves borrowed it from the Muslims who invaded Spain in the 8th century. Indeed, the word acequia (pronounced ‘ah-seh-key-uh,’ stress on the ‘seh’) is an adaptation of the Arabic as-saqiya, meaning water carrier.

There are close to 700 functioning acequias in New Mexico, according to the state’s Acequia Commission, and a score more in Colorado. Many of these gravity-fed ditches that bring runoff from the mountains to the fields have been operating for three centuries, and some were likely dug long before that.

Read more from Robert Neuwirth with National Geographic here.