Segment from Tapped Out

How the West Was Watered

Ralph Vigil, chairman of the New Mexico Acequia Commission, joins our hosts to talk about a tradition of communal canals that stretches back hundreds of years in the Southwest.

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*** The following transcript reflects an earlier broadcast of this episode. Some language may differ from the rebroadcast version. ***

PETER ONUF: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

ED AYERS: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN BALOGH: And I’m Brian Balogh. We’re talking today about the history of struggles over fresh water in the United States. In the first part of our show, we heard about the legal framework that emerged out of those struggles, and enabled massive development in the drier parts of our country.

PETER ONUF: But in these very same regions, some people have been finding solutions to their water problems outside of the courtroom. They’re members of what are known as “acequias,” essentially systems of irrigation ditches built around a natural source of water, and governed collectively by those using the water.

Spanish colonists first brought the idea to the current day Southwest in the 1600s. And until the US took over that territory, it was the dominant method of irrigation there.

ED AYERS: Today, about 1,000 acequias still exist in New Mexico and Colorado. Ralph Vigil, a farmer and chairman of the New Mexico Acequia Commission, runs one of them. Mr. Vigil, welcome to BackStory.

RALPH VIGIL: Thank you.

ED AYERS: So could you describe what this looks like in practice? I have a hard time picturing it.

RALPH VIGIL: Well, you’re looking at, basically, we call acequias an extension of the river. If you want to imagine a creek, so to speak, running alongside parallel to the river through the community, and away from the river in most cases.

And through the establishment and construction of the acequias when the Spaniards first arrived, they did create a riparian area with habitat. And you’ll see the unique landscape that it creates, and you can’t miss the Greenbelt. And once you see that Greenbelt, you get an idea, well, there must be an effective system within that community.

BRIAN BALOGH: How does one of these acequias work? Who runs it?

RALPH VIGIL: The acequias and the governance is elected amongst the members of the acequia, who are landowners that have a water right. All acequias are independently governed by the parciontes, and parciontes are basically people who own land off the acequia, who have water rights to irrigate.

So it is the first and oldest democracy in the United States of America, and we still continue to operate as such.

PETER ONUF: Are there advantages in terms of water conservation? Have these traditional ways of channeling water been the most effective, and do they compare well with other forms of water management in the West?

RALPH VIGIL: Yes. Through the acequia systems, we have what we call the “repartimientos,” or “leas de las acequias,” which are basically the rules that come from really, really old Spanish law, and which have been put in place to share in times of shortages. that’s the whole point of them.

We have sharing agreements amongst everybody. Depending on the acequias, you’re either allocated on time, how much time you have to use the water. Some acequias do it days. Like my acequia, if we have a time of drought, north of the bank here at Pecos gets water half the week. South will get the water the other half of the week.

And we also have water banking, which has been a great thing for us to preserve our water. I can keep them within our acequia, to where somebody will sign over their rights for the year, two years, bank it within the acequia.

And therefore, somebody who may need more water that year for whatever crop they have, alfalfa, grass, vegetable garden, can go ahead and be able to use that water right, within the acequia. There’s a lot of cooperating between community members, and that’s how we work together.

And I think that’s what’s been lost here in the United States a lot is community. There’s too many individuals with personal interest, and there’s not much of that communal-based system that we depended on in the past, getting people at the table and having discussions, and being able to work it out without any type of litigation or involving lawyers at all.

PETER ONUF: So there are two conclusions I draw from what you’ve been saying, Mr. Vigil. One is, we shouldn’t rely on lawyers so much. That sounds really subversive. We shouldn’t be suing each other all the time. And maybe the old folks centuries ago, going back to the 18th century, 17th century and beyond, understood better problems of scarcity, and how to manage these problems.

So you’re saying we should turn back the clock and get rid of the lawyers.

RALPH VIGIL: I think so. I have lots of friends that are lawyers out there. You know, they have families to feed, too. But they tend to not see things from the ground as our elders do, because they deal with water daily.

They see it from our watersheds. They see how our watersheds are unhealthy now. They see a lot what needs to be seen on the ground, helping the community members.

Lawyers just see what they see in case law, and law books, and whatever they find in the research. And I think we need more people on the ground, and instead of decisions coming from the top down, decisions need to start coming from the bottom up. And that’s what I think is wrong with our system, and definitely what’s wrong with water policy right now.

BRIAN BALOGH: Thank you very much.

RALPH VIGIL: Thank you.

ED AYERS: Ralph Vigil is chairman of the New Mexico Acequia Commission, and a farmer in Pecos, New Mexico. He’s also president of the Acequia del Molino. Get this, it’s 300 years old.

So Peter, I have a question for you, being our specialist in all things really old. Mr. Vigil made the excellent point that this was very early in what became the history of the United States. But I know we had the commons in New England, had a different system of dealing with the same kind of issue. How did they deal with water?

PETER ONUF: Well, water was in New England, for instance, never really a problem. There are plentiful water sources throughout New England. The commons–

ED AYERS: When it wasn’t frozen.

PETER ONUF: When it wasn’t frozen, right. And the idea of the commons is a very powerful one in early New England, and that probably has a lot to do with early New England democracy, just as Mr. Vigil was talking about democracy in the Southwest.

I’d say there’s a real tension, though, and it’s apparent from the beginning. There’s powerful imperatives toward privatization of public resources that is dividing the commons. That is, the town center, the idea of a nucleated village and then with common fields beyond, that doesn’t survive very long in very many places.

The availability of land and water leads towards farm-making and the distribution and diffusion of authority. But what we have is a legal system and a culture that adapts to environmental conditions, where there is plentiful land. And the big problem of resource management is equitable distribution, creating new towns.

It’s expansive in a way that later development in the Southwest can’t be expansive. And these plans for new states really project the experience of old states across the continent. They’re supposed to grow into replicas of the original states.

BRIAN BALOGH: And even in the amount of land they handed out, Peter, right? It was totally inappropriate for the West.

PETER ONUF: Yes, exactly right. Exactly right.

ED AYERS: So when you have this system, like acequia, firmly in place for centuries, people from the East are showing up and saying, that’s not the way we do things in the modern world. That water belongs to somebody, and we’re going to define by law who it belongs to. And you start seeing that this whole communal system’s being dismantled, really with the arrival of the white settlers.

BRIAN BALOGH: But this fellow named John Wesley Powell, who was a Civil War veteran. He was a surveyor. He explored large parts of the West. He named many of the bodies of water.

PETER ONUF: Lake Powell.

BRIAN BALOGH: Lake Powell, that we know.

PETER ONUF: Well, that was named after him, right?

BRIAN BALOGH: Yes, exactly. But he did name many of them out there in the West. He went on to be head of the US Geological Survey that mapped a large part of the West and the resources of the West. That included water, of course.

He had a vision that was quite different, and his vision was, in essence, to redraw political boundaries around the watersheds and around the flow of water, so that states could be formed and populations could grow where the water is, rather than, in many instances today, where it’s not.

PETER ONUF: It makes sense, doesn’t it? So why doesn’t that fly, Brian?

ED AYERS: Or float.

BRIAN BALOGH: Well, it sinks like a stone, because people called this socialist. They called this collectivism, and because, as we just witnessed in the Civil War, Americans had pretty strong attachments to their states in those days.

Where Powell’s idea of drawing political jurisdiction that conformed to the land, or the water in this case, resurfaces, if you will, is with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Right in Ed’s home stomping ground there.

And the whole idea, and it was an idealistic one, was to override the authority of states and towns by this authority that would be formed, not based on political jurisdiction, but based on the natural shape of the Tennessee River Valley.

Now, the problem there wasn’t scarcity of rain, like in the West. It was still a humid area. The problem there was the multiple uses of water, and it led to the same set of issues of who gets the first rights. Navigation, drinking water, water for hydropower, water to drive manufacturing.

ED AYERS: And don’t forget water for water skiing, which was the most useful purpose near our house.

PETER ONUF: So Brian, I got a question for you. Would you say that Powell was just way before his time in thinking so big, because the state didn’t have the capacity to do the kind of surveys that would be necessary to really do intelligent development, according to the water availability and to link water rights with land rights, and so forth.

They simply couldn’t do it at that point. But now, it seems the moment has come that it has to be done in the drought-ridden West, isn’t it?

BRIAN BALOGH: I think it might have to be done in the drought-ridden West today, Peter, but Powell still would have had been before his time, even during the New Deal. Because in spite of the lofty language and the mission of the Tennessee Valley Authority, it foundered on the rights of local communities and states.

And it turned out that those state boundaries and those political allegiances that formed around them were, well, frankly as powerful as fast-flowing rivers. They were real, too, as it turned out. It was very hard to defy them by the 1930s.

PETER ONUF: Let me follow up with this question then. Mr. Vigil suggests that democracy could be the answer to water management problems. You’re suggesting that democracy’s the problem in large-scale regional management of scarce resources.

BRIAN BALOGH: I am suggesting that the history that that democracy has taken, as though it were a river that has been channeled into little eddies, and divided and broken up in neighborhoods, and towns, and counties, and states, and Whigs, and Democrats, and Republicans. That history of democracy is rock-solid and awfully hard to throw off its course.