While city folks may take their sprinkler systems for granted, rural New Mexicans often have to work hard for their water, which flows through nearly 1,000 acequias or irrigation ditches located throughout the state.
But nobody's complaining.
For instance, this spring in the village of El Cerrito, 65 people turned out for the annual “limpia” — a day in the hot sun cleaning the local acequia that brings precious water from the Pecos River to the area's small farmers.
That turnout was impressive, especially because fewer than 10 able-bodied men regularly reside along the acequia's path. The rest were friends, area landowners living outside the village, and even former area residents back just for the day.
“Ditch cleaning is hard work, but in spite of that a lot of people show up to help and celebrate afterwards,” said Clyde Eastman, a rural sociologist with New Mexico State University's Agricultural Experiment Station.
Eastman wonders why so many people travel each year to the isolated village in San Miguel County to spend the day doing physical labor. He also wants to know how rural residents benefit from the acequias, since many of the farms along the ditch are small-scale and non-commercial
To find answers, Eastman is surveying members or “parciantes” of New Mexico's acequias. So far, he has interviewed 80 members of 28 different ditches.
Acequias typically receive water from a diversion dam along a river or stream. The “acequia madre” is the mother ditch that feeds individual farm ditches and sometimes other acequias, before ultimately returning to the river.
Many of the state's acequias are connected to community land grants located in north central New Mexico and the middle Rio Grande Valley. “For centuries, acequias have played an important role in the development of New Mexico's unique culture, and they continue as an integral part of rural life,” Eastman said.
“I'm looking at the social organization of the ditch — how the people manage to get the maintenance done, and how they allocate water.”
Managing each acequia is the job of a “mayordomo” or ditchmaster elected by the parciantes. “How the water is managed varies substantially from ditch to ditch.”
Members of the Francisco Martinez ditch in Taos County follow a traditional approach to allocating water. Each day at 6 a.m., the mayordomo drives to a central location where members must appear in person to request water. The mayordomo does not accept telephoned requests.
However, a more common system is found with the Acequia del Rio de Chama, which runs along the Rio Chama River in Rio Arriba County. Here water is plentiful, and members simply request water as needed.
Eastman said sometimes fights erupt over water allocation. “There are a couple of interesting ditches near Ruidoso where the problems have been solved by setting up a tight water schedule by the hour for the entire season,” he said. “Now, all the members know when they'll get their allocation and for how long.”
From his surveys, Eastman has found that water quality, not quantity, is the primary concern of most parciantes. Those located downstream from treatment plants and tourist areas complain about pollution.
He has also found that even though few parciantes can make a living today from their small farms, they value their acequia membership. They chose the following top two statements that describe the benefits most important to them: “to experience a good quality of life” and “increase the value of the land.”
“It's the lifestyle that they really value for themselves and their children,” Eastman said. “They like living in a rural area, and they find these to be good activities for their children.