A Brief History of Acequias

The Islamic invasion of Spain, beginning late in the eighth century, brought techniques of irrigation largely unpracticed in Spain since Roman times. Around Moorish towns an extensive garden agriculture flourished, watered by the first acequias, traditionally dated to the reign of Hakam II.

Interestingly, the Spanish vocabulary of irrigation: acequia (ditch or canal), zanja, (smaller ditch), charca (pond), alcantarilla (culvert), and acena (water mill) are all terms of nearly undisturbed Arabic origin.

Spain sent adventurers, functionaries and irrigation experts to the New World, while a pioneering resettlement that continued well into the 18th century occurred in Spain's arid regions of Andalusia, Alicante, Murcia and Estremadura.

Results, in Spain as well as in the New World, were not completely satisfactory. The Crown vacillated between a desire for the larger grain harvests that came from irrigated land and for bulkier revenues: ready cash for the monarchy flowed from taxation of sheep, which grazed profitably on immense tracts of unimproved land. Because of unclear royal policies, smaller freeholders, or farmers, found themselves only favored occasionally and disregarded often in conflicts with hildalgo encroachers.

Similarly in Mexico, so like Spain in climate and topography, the same tension between agriculture and pastoral interests quickly developed. Here, the vital acequias, community built and maintained, were frequently the cause of strife and litigation; they recur in the history of Mexico as an inflamed symbol of the small farmer's struggle for livelihood and independence.

Upon their arrival to the area that would become New Mexico, Spanish explorers and colonists of the late 16th century discovered irrigation practices already developed by the Pueblo Indians. One Spanish explorers testified to this when he recorded in 1583, "many corn fields with canals and dams, built as if by the Spaniards." However, with the horses and metal tools brought by the Spaniards better ditches could be more easily dug.

The acequia technology we see in evidence today is a result of this early combination of the two cultures.