Death by Dessication

The demise of Old Santa Fe’s acequias and other effects of fascist ecology

Essay and photos by ERIC SHULTZ

[Editor’s note: while we are publishing this piece as a stand-alone essay, it was originally written as Part 7 of Eric Shultz’s “Fascism, the Musical: ecology of the Santa Fe Opera.” For the interested reader, here are links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6.]

John Crosby has made such a reputation with this opera that anybody that comes now is either frightfully rich or frightfully interested in opera. If it weren’t for the opera, Santa Fe would still be a small village.

–Mirandi Masocco[1]

The basic idea of the above quote is plausible. The Opera attracted the “frightfully rich” whose homes (or second homes) and habits drove up taxes and prices so that Santa Fe’s long-time residents could no longer afford to live here. But the claim that the Opera destroyed the “village” and replaced it with a kind of arts & leisure theme park exaggerates the Opera’s importance and misses the real history of Santa Fe. In continuation, I intend to show that the interests and forces that killed the “village” of Santa Fe had a lot to do with fascism, but rather than an effect of the Santa Fe Opera, they were a precondition for it.

A Santa Fe old-timer named Valentín Valdez recently self-published a memoir called Mi vida en Santa Fé. He grew up in the 1920s and 30s near the mouth of Santa Fe canyon. One chapter bears the informative title, “What Happened to the Family When the Forest Service Forced Us Out and Made Us Sell Our Goats.” According to Mr. Valdez, it was in the 1930s that the federal government stopped Santa Fe families from grazing livestock in the forests bordering the town. One day his father announced that he was selling the family’s goats.

I felt real bad about it. My father and I got into an argument, and he said there was no way we could keep them because the Forest Service told us we couldn’t graze them in the forest anymore and there was no place else to graze them…. The whole family got upset. Nobody was talking to each other. The one that got most upset was my sister Ernestina. She even cried. The next day a big truck came and took them away.

This marked a turning point in Valentín’s life. “The next day I got up and went to look for a job.”[2] [The situation Mr. Valdez relates is consistent with Forest Service policy restricting subsistence grazing throughout Hispanic northern New Mexico in the 1930s, as described by David Correia for the Vallecitos area here.]

Present-day Santa Fe youth still enjoy an idyllic refuge near Valentin Valdez’s childhood home, although there is not enough water for actual swimming.

Mr. Valdez titles an earlier chapter “There Was Plenty of Water for Everybody.” During his childhood, the river ran year-round and kids would build dams to make swimming holes.

The Cerro Gordo kids had their dam at the top … and included the Martinezes (Los Corucos), the Gonzaleses from Upper Canyon Road, and some others. The next one down … were some Vigils and Rodriguezes…. The third dam was … where the Acequia Madre comes in. There were a bunch of kids at that one – the Vigils, the Valdezes and the Roybals. Down below … there was a dam in there for the Saizes, the Valdezes and the Lobatos….[3]

But turning to more grown-up matters, he recalls that “[t]here were quite a few acequias, or irrigation ditches, that used to irrigate pieces of land to grow vegetables.”[4]

People with a preservationist mentality are proud of Santa Fe’s acequia madre or “mother ditch” that still flows for a few weeks most springtimes. But to believe that the acequia madre was the one-and-only ditch from which Santa Fe took water is a huge misunderstanding: so northsiders didn’t irrigate? Indeed, the acequia madre had long been Santa Fe’s largest ditch, watering about one-third of all cultivated acres. But a hydrographic survey by the Office of the State Engineer (OSE) in the nineteen-teens mapped 38 distinct acequias along the Santa Fe River. Over 30 of these irrigated fields, gardens and orchards in the city of Santa Fe and the adjacent village of Agua Fria.[5] There were quite a few acequias indeed.

Of the more than 30 acequias serving greater Santa Fe (not including the downstream communities of La Cieneguilla and La Bajada), several were small and served only one or two families. Some appeared not to be for irrigation at all, but for channeling flood waters to deposit silt to build up low ground. But several were large acequias that served dozens of families each, acequias on both sides of the river, including the Acequia del Cerro Gordo (Ditch No. 2 in the OSE survey), the Acequia Pública (Ditch No. 16) that passed by Lotta Burger on North Guadalupe and extended across De Vargas Mall to Casa Solana, and the one called Ditch No. 17 that followed Agua Fria Street for several miles, irrigating land north of that street, along Alto Street and in what is now the La Conquistadora subdivision. One ditch (No. 12) that went between Alameda and Palace Avenue (perhaps through La Posada) and ended up by the Cathedral, was called the Bishop’s Garden Ditch. Santa Fe must truly have been an enchanting place with so many little brooks of live water coursing through its precincts. But more than a physical structure, each acequia was also a social organization. The point is not just that Santa Fe had a network of ditches, but that the Santa Fe community was a patchwork of acequia associations.

The 1919 OSE report is based on observations made during one irrigating season (1914). Of the 38 acequias along the entire Santa Fe River, 23 were in use for irrigation that year. According to New Mexico statutes, an acequia is governed by three commissioners and one mayordomo. Regarding the situation in 1914, the authors of the report put their findings in a negative light.

Only nine of the twenty-three ditches had in 1914 a full set of officials. Three had commissioners, but no mayordomos; four had mayordomos, but no commissioners; one had only two commissioners and a mayordomo; and six had no officials at all.[6]

Spun the other way, in a one-season snapshot of social entities in some cases centuries old, 17 of 23 acequias employed officers of formal governance while the remaining six continued to function by the direct participation of their members despite their governing offices being momentarily vacant. But the OSE’s interest was legal and not anthropological. Claiming to have made “investigations” – but offering no evidence besides the one-season snapshot – as to whether Santa Fe acequia governance conformed to “Sec. 5746 of New Mexico Statutes,” the report says that compliance is “irregular.” We can tell which way the wind is blowing: “It is not possible that under this disconnected and irregular management the water can have been distributed equitably.”[7]

It is notable that the authors of the report are not claiming that the Santa Fe River’s acequia-based water allocation system doesn’t work. They are saying it can’t work because its management structure is disconnected and – uh-oh! – irregular.

Under this practice, considering the fact that the water supply is very limited, it is inevitable that the users under the upper ditches will divert more water than they need, and that the users under the lower ditches must take what chance may leave for them.[8] (Emphasis added.)

The Acequia Madre’s elaborate head gate: water to the acequia flows toward the top on the image; the spillway to the right is return to the Santa Fe River.

It is as predictable that the down-river parciantes would confirm this statement, as it is that those up stream would dispute it. But the controlling fact about the scarcity of water has little to do with either up-stream or down-stream acequias, and everything to do with the river having become the source for Santa Fe’s municipal water system. But acequia members have rights the State Engineer has a duty to protect, so the problem comes down to management.

In order to facilitate the diversion of proper proportions of water it is necessary that measuring weirs should be installed at the intakes of all ditches.[9]

Nearly a century later, the OSE is installing flow meters on acequias throughout the state. We got ours year-before-last. When fully operational, their solar-powered radio data uplinks will allow us to monitor flow in real time on the internet. Monitor and be monitored.

But back to the 1919 report. The authors’ final recommendation is nothing short of stunning:

It would be practicable for one competent water master to direct the care of ditches, and the equitable distribution of the irrigation water in all of the portion of the stream system considered in this report.[10]

Diverse psychological factors have been studied in relation to fascism, relating to the domination and to the submission it involves. In America, a kind of Fordist passion for efficiency in management brings many such forces into play with the appearance of unquestionable propriety. The shiny-apple goodness of eliminating irregularity brooks no discussion. Could you be for inefficiency? Do you want to be wasteful? Are you saying unfairness is good? But the problem with the report’s recommendation is that it would achieve efficiency by eliminating a highly participatory form of community self-governance to be replaced with a bureaucratic dictatorship. Long before there was any thought of a Santa Fe Opera, the Office of the State Engineer was advocating the destruction of the village, and the prescription was highly fascistic: not only would a single State-appointed water master make the ditches run on time, he’d make each one run at the proper rate of cubic feet per second.

Though the 1919 OSE proposal to eliminate acequia associations was never implemented, actions tending toward the acequias’ demise proceeded apace, and life-long Santa Fe resident Anita Gonzales Thomas remembered the village’s time of death..

Most people had gardens, anybody that was on a ditch. In fact, the year we built this house was the last year that water ran down the ditch…. That was 1950.[11]

When I discussed the near-complete demise of Santa Fe’s acequias with some unusually knowledgeable people (one a retired local judge who has tried acequia cases, another a leading historian of Spanish colonial administration), they immediately pointed to the dams in the canyon as the reason the river has all but stopped flowing. Of course this is a kind of mental shorthand and only part of the answer. The dams per se are not the cause. Once the reservoirs reach a certain level, water has to be released. Unschooled Valentín Valdez states the reason in more practical and accurate terms: “Santa Fe Power Company got all that river water and put it into pipes.”[12] The water still gets past the dams, but not into the river and acequias. And Mr. Valdez knows this from experience:

In 1950 I worked for the Santa Fe Power Company. At the corner of Acequia Madre and Canyon Road they were digging a ditch for a 20-inch pipe.[13]

Exposed at an arroyo crossing, the 20-inch water main Valentin Valdez helped to install in 1950, bears a 1949 manufacture date on a socket end: HCIP stands for Heavy Cast Iron Pipe. How many acequias does it replace?

From a stream the size of the Santa Fe River, a 20-inch pipe – with water moving at high velocity due to high pressure – would take enough water for several acequias. And the year Mr. Valdez helped lay the 20-inch pipe was the last year Mrs. Gonzales Thomas had water in her acequia. Such anecdotal claims hardly make for conclusive historiography, but the agreement between their assertions strongly suggests an area of further research.

A major 2002 report confirms the general contours of Valdez’s and Gonzales Thomas’s account. According to the Santa Fe Watershed Restoration Action Strategy:

The regular dewatering of the Santa Fe River seems to have begun in the late 1940s, when water demand in the City began to approach the supply available from the reservoirs above town. Five wells were installed near the Santa Fe River; they supplied 68% of the City’s drinking water in 1951, and from that point forward served as an important supplemental water source, and occasionally (until the Buckman well field was brought on line in 1972) the major source for the city.[14]

One might think the use of wells to feed the city’s new 20-inch main would allow more reservoir water to be released for surviving acequias, but reality was not that simple. Not only did increasing urban demand lay claim to any surface water dividend afforded by the wells, but the wells themselves took a toll:

It seems that the groundwater drawdown created by heavy use of the City’s riverside wells beginning in 1951 caused a disconnection between the river and the shallow groundwater that formerly kept the river moist if not flowing.[15]

By lowering the water table, the city’s wells have dried up springs that supplemented the river’s flow, and have also dried the river’s bed causing more of the flow to be absorbed into the ground hence unavailable to the acequias.

In the mid-1970s, the Office of the State Engineer repeated the Santa Fe River hydrographic survey. The 1978 Report lists seven active acequias along the entire length of the river, instead of 38.[16] Even more telling is the drop in acreage irrigated: approximately 62.9 acres in 1975 (time of the field survey), down from almost 1300 acres in 1914. That is a decrease of over 95 percent. Did Santa Fe’s acequias dry up suddenly after 1950? We have evidence that they did. That acequia irrigation all but disappeared between 1914 and 1975, there is no doubt.

With regard to the question posed at the start of this section, by the late 1950s when the Santa Fe Opera began, the traditional community fabric of Santa Fe had been unraveling for decades. Santa Fe’s village life – farming and herding by families within the community – had been curtailed by changing government policies and competing resource allocations. Community disintegration caused by the exodus especially of young men to fight in WWII and to take war economy jobs often in California, accelerated Santa Fe’s social transformation. By the 1950s, many of Santa Fe’s long-time residents found themselves needing to sell their in-town property and take jobs in construction and services for reasons unrelated to an opera company eventually starting up a few miles north in Tesuque.

Reflecting the changed post-War reality, in 1946 the City hired the St. Louis firm of Harland Bartholomew and Associates to produce Santa Fe’s first Comprehensive City Plan (the City Planning Commission of that year included the poet Witter Bynner discussed in our Part 4). Published in 1950, the finished Plan is illuminated with half a dozen heartrendingly beautiful Laura Gilpin photographs I have never seen elsewhere. One detail tellingly declares the village dead: the Plan defines agricultural land as “vacant.”[17] Many of its recommendations have come to pass, such as a thru-town highway that became St. Francis Drive, although the originally proposed route along Guadalupe Street would have eliminated not only the aforementioned Lotta Burger but also the entire “Little Main Street” commercial district adjoining the Railyard. Other suggestions did not materialize. In discussing the need for airport facilities, the planners projected Santa Feans having 260 private aircraft by 1960. Of these, they predicted that half, or 130, would be helicopters and a good location for the heliport would be the area now occupied by De Vargas Mall. [18] No provision is made for flying cars.

One paragraph of the Plan pertains directly to the death of the village and I will quote it in full:

As an aid in the diversion of storm water, the acequias could be of considerable assistance. These are artificial water courses of very flat grade originally designed for irrigation purposes. Their usefulness as a means of storm drainage is limited by their very flat grade and their meandering character. A few short storm drains providing a more direct connection between the acequias and the river would considerably improve the efficiency of the system. For example, storm sewers on Garcia Street and on Camino del Monte Sol between the Acequia Madre and the river would accomplish this purpose. It is desirable to retain the acequias both for drainage purposes and because of their historic interest.[19]

This photo is an essay in itself: as recently as 1970, this sewer main (now hidden inside a footbridge just west of St. Francis Drive) was buried in the Santa Fe River streambed. By the 1990s, “efficient” high-velocity storm water discharge into the river, as recommended by the 1950 City Plan, had eroded a channel that undercut the pipe by 15 feet. Recent restoration measures have left the pipe around 10 feet above the bed (Santa Fe River Watershed Restoration Action Strategy, p. 13: see endnotes for full citation).

I wish to dwell for a moment on this passage’s implicit criticism of acequias as highly inefficient. Note that the authors of the Plan judge them inefficient as conduits for draining water off the land and into the river, while acknowledging that they were created for the opposite purpose. An impulse to conserve acequias as acequias can be fittingly described as conservative. But to force acequias to perform a diametrically opposite role – even subjecting them to violent mutilation in the interest of efficiency – is a metaphor for fascism. And, what the planners here refer to as acequias are only the physical substrate and not the social – human – entity that is an acequia association.  Such a dehumanizing discourse is consistent with a fascist mentality, too. To say that acequias should be preserved “because of their historic interest” is to tell the villagers whose lives depended on them: you’re history. Other, actual interests will find a use for the ditches.

Noting that the city is poorly situated for industry and wholesale commerce, and that government will always be a limited source of employment, the plan identifies Santa Fe’s “unique character” as the factor attracting “artists, writers and retired persons,” but also that which makes it “a very considerable tourist center.”[20] The title of the Plan’s last chapter identifies the specific content of Santa Fe’s character that will be the city’s ticket to the future: “The City’s Appearance.” While much of Santa Fe’s charm comes from its setting – “magnificant [sic] views of mountains in all directions through the clear New Mexico atmosphere, together with the colorful sunrises and sunsets”[21] – the Plan goes on to specify that “[m]ost of the present character of Santa Fe is attributable” to its buildings insofar as they represent “the so-called ‘Santa Fe Style’.”[22]

Many of Santa Fe’s buildings exemplify this style, and wealthy trend-setters such as Cutting and Bynner adapted it to residences of palatial opulence. But around 1950, the bulk of traditional adobes were still the homes of Santa Fe’s long-time Hispanic residents. The Plan insists that such cultural capital be saved: “All of these historical areas, built in the Santa Fe style, should certainly be retained and if possible extended.” But a contradiction arose: many of the most authentic examples of adobe building were now nothing if not slums:

It is not necessary that overcrowded conditions or a low standard of living, where these now exist, be retained also. The buildings should be maintained in a good state of repair; adequate sanitary facilities will not detract from their appearance; and they can contain living units of a high standard without interfering with their appearance.[23]

History has shown that in many of Santa Fe’s neighborhoods, gentrification has eliminated “overcrowded conditions” and “a low standard of living” simply by replacing Santa Fe’s long-time residents with newer, more affluent ones. As the passage above makes clear, what mattered for Santa Fe was not that its people should thrive and prosper, but that it should become peopled by prosperous newcomers able to retrofit the city’s housing stock with all the modern amenities while maintaining the appearance of defunct folk traditions. At least, this is the interpretation that Santa Fe’s subsequent history supports. The village is dead, but long live the charming mud huts.

In the course of this series, it should be clear that my aim is not merely to identify this composer or that opera lover as someone with discernible fascist sympathies. My concern is larger. There is something in Santa Fe’s political economy that concords with fascism: an “ecology” conducive to fascistic individuals and institutions. With respect to Santa Fe’s acequias, we see this “ecology” in the anti-democratic intentions of the Office of the State Engineer. The 1914 Santa Fe River hydrographic survey found 23 acequias with 52 governing officials. Even a conservative  estimate of acequia members participating in the election of these officials would number in the hundreds. One can legitimately criticize existing acequia associations for distortions of democratic process and limitations in member participation, and one would be naïve or romantic to believe that problems like those of today did not exist a century ago. But such shortcomings notwithstanding, the State of New Mexico’s proposal to wipe out Santa Fe’s entire system of acequia governance by appointing “one competent water master” is not just less democratic: it is anti-democratic. Published in 1919, this modest proposal coincided with the rise of Mussolini, who initially impressed many American leaders in business and government as a kindred spirit with his no-nonsense dedication to efficacy and efficiency in administration. To label the State Engineer’s proposal “fascistic” is no exaggeration, insofar as it resonated with the aims and methods then being implemented in Italy and applauded by hard-nosed American administrators.

Unique character: the Acequia Madre crossing under Canyon Road on Santa Fe’s exquisite and expensive East Side.

The 1950 Santa Fe Comprehensive City Plan is the product of a very different time. Americans’ overt support for fascism had largely been chastened by the rigors of the war, yet the intensifying Cold War was breathing new life into anti-democratic impulses. By its very nature, a city plan is an authoritarian instrument. But to call any and everything authoritarian “fascistic” renders the word meaningless by overextension. Still, there is something about the Santa Fe Plan that sets it apart from other exemplars of the genre. Predictably, it places the interests of the business community above those of the poor and working populace, as passages I have quoted above make clear. The Chamber of Commerce even paid for nearly 20 percent of the Harland Bartholomew contract, but such could well be the case in any city in the country. What makes the Santa Fe Plan different is that it subordinates immediate economic considerations to a fundamentally esthetic imperative: the preservation of Santa Fe’s “unique character.”

Studies contained herein indicate that the people of the community may have to put up with a certain amount of inconvenience in order to preserve this major asset. It would be short-sighted to sacrifice this unique character to efficiency or even economy.[24]

By adopting the Harland Bartholomew plan, the city fathers not only assumed a pimp-like concern for the commercial potential of Santa Fe’s increasingly made-up looks. There is something even more disturbing, something organically wrong, since besides the Third Reich, where else has architectural conformity been such a central matter of public administration?

No, the Opera didn’t kill the village. It merely gathered the jackals who feasted on the already dead village’s exquisite corpse.[25]


[1]  Masocco Levy, Mirandi in John Pen La Farge, Turn Left at the Sleeping Dog: scripting the Santa Fe legend, 1920-1955. Albuquerque: UNM Press 2001, p. 331.

[2]  Valdez, Valentín. Mi vida en Santa Fé. Santa Fe: Valentín Valdez 2010, p. 76.

[3]  Ibid., p. 38.

[4]  Ibid., p. 39.

[5]  State Engineer’s Office. Report: Santa Fe Hydrographic Survey. Santa Fe: State Engineer’s Office 1919.

[6] Ibid., pp. 105.

[7] Ibid., p. 106.

[8] Ibid., p. 106.

[9] Ibid., p. 106.

[10] Ibid., p. 106.

[11]  Gonzales Thomas, Anita. “Before the War,” in John Pen La Farge, p. 74.

[12]  Valdez, p. 40.

[13]  Ibid., p. 108.

[14] Grant, Paige and the Santa Fe Watershed Association. Santa Fe Watershed Restoration Action Strategy. Santa Fe: New Mexico Environment Department 2002, p. 10.

[15] Ibid., p. 13.

[16]  Reynolds, S. E., State Engineer. Santa Fe River Hydrographic Survey Report, Volume II. Santa Fe: Office of the State Engineer 1978, p. i.

[17]  Harland Bartholomew and Associates. Comprehensive City Plan: Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe: City of Santa Fe 1950, p.36.

[18] Ibid., pp. 113-14: “This type of plane can rise and descend vertically and does not require a large landing area. It will not be satisfactory, however, to permit helicopters to land promiscuously throughout the city. These machines, particularly those owned by tourists and visitors, will require facilities for service and storage that should be provided in a central location accessible to the business district. A suggested site for such a helicopter field would be immediately northwest of the Arroyo de las Mascaras adjacent to Rosario Street or San Francisco Street.”

[19] Ibid., p. 73.

[20] Ibid., p. 115.

[21] Ibid., p. 115.

[22] Ibid., p. 119.

[23] Ibid., p. 119.

[24] Ibid., p. 3.

[25] Saunders, Frances Stonor. The Cultural Cold War: the CIA and the world of arts and letters. New York: The New Press 1999, p. 7. Years ago, I began hearing ‘exquisite corpse’ on NPR as the name of a poetry magazine edited by commentator Andrei Codrescu. Saunders uses it to title her first chapter, and has done us the service of acknowledging the phrase’s coining by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who found Paris in the brutally cold winter of 1947 to be “empty and hollow and dead, like an exquisite corpse.”

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One comment

  1. As Chairperson of Acequia Agua Fria in the Traditional Historic Community (THC) of Agua Fria Village, we are trying to revitalize our agriculture in our area. The Village, along the Santa Fe River since circa 1640, suffered the same fate as the Valdez family.

    The story is one of great corruption and travesty to native peoples. The water rights for the City of Santa Fe were obtained through fraud perpetuated by the notorious “Santa Fe Ring” which included the three city councilors, governor, judge (that would hear the water rights case), and New Mexican Editor amongst others. As the Santa Fe Improvement Company and later Santa Fe Power and Light Company in 1888, the Ring condemned the land of farmers along the reservoir sites using Eminent Domain of Santa Fe County (the city was not yet incorporated), which we contend is an illegal assignment of legal powers to a profit entity. The illegal closure of the acequias by the reservoir in 1895 violates every principle of water law in America, further actions in 1945 to raise the reservoir and close of the acequia and replace the water with effluent from the Siler Road treatment plant are as dubious.

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