Lesson 16 of 22
In Progress

Traditions of Water Use & Protecting Water Values

February 14, 2023

History of Traditional Uses of Water

Humans in the Southwest have used water and manipulated water for thousands of years for a variety of purposes.  To this day, many communities use water for spiritual and ceremonial uses including many Pueblos along the Rio Grande.  For this reason several tribes have water quality standards that are designed to protect ceremonial uses of water including direct contact with water in New Mexico rivers.  Rivers are considered to have spiritual values in which people see rivers as mothers and a river spirit known as Avanyu that inhabits waterways.

Water for Traditional Irrigation to Grow Crops

The first signs of irrigation systems in the Southwest start from around 800 AD. When the Spanish came here in the early 1500’s, their irrigation method was nothing new to the landscape; the Puebloan people already had a history of changing the land for water use.

The Spanish brought something that was new – a written law of how water needs to shared and managed using Acequias which are community-operated ditches brought to Spain by the Moors.  Acequias are still in in use today and are one of the oldest forms of democracy in North America in which a member of the community gets elected to be “ditch masters” or Mayordomo of the ditch. A Mayordomo coordinates ditch cleanup and maintains the infrastructure, and their most important role is deciding who will get water and for how long the Parciantes (people with access to the ditch and responsibility to help maintain it) get to irrigate their fields.  Water belongs to the community, not to individuals, in acequia culture and practice and mayordomo is responsible for making sure everybody gets a fair share even if it means that someone always has water for their chickens during a drought (Siempre hay agua para las gallinas – an old Spanish saying).  The introduction of acequias became the start of written water law in New Mexico.

When the United States occupied the Southwest US after the Mexican American War, taking California, Arizona, New Mexico and portions of Texas away from Mexico by force, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) was signed and it was supposed to protect Pueblo and Spanish uses and practices using water.  For a time, people in the Southwest who already had irrigation ditches could continue using the water.  Over time those traditional water use practices became threatened by Anglo-American efforts to privatize the use of water and assign water rights to individuals.  While community ownership of water still has a fairly strong foundation in New Mexico, constant vigilance and legal efforts are underway in rural communities to protect these traditions, laws and practices.

Today New Mexico water law is governed by Prior Appropriation, which means the water users who first used water in New Mexico have the strongest water rights and that people who began using water later will be the first ones to be told they cannot use water if their is a shortage.  Also described as “first in time, first in right” prior appropriate determines water rights based on the date of first water use to establish the user’s priority to use the water. The earliest user of water has the superior  or senior water right. If there is not enough water for all users, the senior appropriators will be allowed to use all of their allotted water while the junior appropriators may receive only some or none of their allotted water.

Access to Rivers

Another important value is the right to access water for recreation or other values not related to consuming water.  In 2023, the New Mexico Supreme Court affirmed the right of New Mexicans described in the state constitution which says that access to water in rivers and creeks is public.  As long as the person walking the river stays off the river banks, access needs to be allowed.

Important vocabulary:

Acequias – Community water ditches for irrigation and sometimes drinking water.  For more about acequias watch the video below from minute 3:19 to minute 8:45.

Mayordomo – The “ditch boss” who has the challenging job of making sure water gets shared equitably for all parciantes who have water rights on a ditch.

Parciantes– Participants or water rights holders that use water from a particular acequia