One of the rites of spring in the agricultural valley areas of Albuquerque has always been cleaning the acequias. This is a seasonal task I have been performing for over 50 years, beginning with helping my grandfather when I was barely big enough to carry a rake or a shovel. Every year, prior to the first freshet of irrigation water, neighbors gather to clean out the ditches and attend to irrigation system repairs. This traditional spring task has been occurring in the irrigated valleys of New Mexico for hundreds of years. Clean, straight ditches, plugged gopher holes and properly functioning check gates and laterals mean less water loss in the growing months. It’s also an opportunity for neighbors to visit about the happenings of the past winter and the plans for the spring. To discuss who has died in the past year and who is about to give birth, what is being planted this year by whom, and the status of livestock; a traditional renewing of the community in preparation for the first flooding of the fields.

Today’s strong winds prevent me from starting the job. Burning off the majority of the weed stands from last year is one of the first steps of the process of clearing the ditches and banks. Spring wind is important to the process and is also one of the reasons that this traditional task sometimes results in embarrassing wind-driven wildfires which race through winter dried grass, weeds and bosque. The experienced aceguia burner knows you need a light breeze from the proper direction to push the cleaning fire down the ditch. Experience knows that you always start the burn on the west end of the weed piles. Experience also knows that you always, always, always have many water hoses/buckets available for when the wind gusts unexpectedly and lights someone’s hedge or alfalfa field on fire. It WILL happen, I promise.

Cleaning ditches is hard, dirty, sweaty and smelly work. Stickers, breathing smoke for hours, blisters on office-softened hands, pulled muscles and aches the next day. This tradition won’t last much longer. I guess in terms of progress, that may not be a bad thing. Cleaner air, no smoke pollution. Albuquerque is losing its acequias and its agricultural land. Developers are rapidly in-filling the remaining alfalfa fields and truck gardens in the valley. After all, flood irrigation is not an efficient way to water crops, even for those few truck farms and CSAs which will survive.

In terms of progress, it may not be a bad thing. In terms of knowing your neighbors, getting dirt on your hands and smoke in your eyes and an annual celebration of spring, it’s a tradition I will dearly miss.

(Acknowlegements and thanks to Karl Eschenbach for the great picture of a north valley check gate, lifted from Flickr.)

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Comment by Coco on March 17, 2008 at 6:29pm
Good post, Sir. As to the efficiency of flood irrigation, its all relative. Pivot irrigation is more inefficient electricity-wise.

Context is useful too. Before drainage projects about 70 years ago, most of the valley was wetland. That natural flooding has been nearly eliminated. Irrigated agriculture is now a tiny quaint percentage of river valley area that once flooded seasonally.

Efficiencies in all agricultural production and transportation choices, as well as other water uses, provide perspective on this too. I don't need to mention how conventional agriculture is heavily dependent on big oil.

Things do change. In the context of our Middle Rio Grande, the value of remaining agriculture and your acequia is inestimable - immeasurable.
Comment by chantal on March 17, 2008 at 9:56pm
Fortunately, I still run out of eggs, flour, and sugar often enough that speaking to my neighbors happens on a regular basis. Just this evening, in fact, I tossed a chisel over the fence for my neighbor in need.

Wasn't aware of this annual tradition, so it's nice to bask in your description. Thanks.
Comment by Joan Fenicle on March 17, 2008 at 11:10pm
We live along one of the historic acequias in the Sandia Mountains and that spring ritual is upon us. Upon moving here 9 years ago, I was amazed by the fact that the spring cleaning is done pretty much like it has been for 200 years - by shovel. When the ditches are repaired and cleaned out, and the first water flows into them, it is quite a feeling to follow it down from the mountains into the orchards in the valley. What's most amazing is how the water is administered by the mayordomo in times of scarcity so that everyone shares in what is available. These are what are called senior water rights (secondary to the pueblos of course) and are threatened by development although they are supposedly protected by state law. This year we have some city kids helping and learning - I hope they come away with an understanding of how precious the water is.


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