Santa Fe Acequias Alive!

A Glimpse of Surviving Acequia Culture

Text and photos by ERIC SHULTZ

This week’s post is meant to correct a generally negative picture  painted last week in Death by Dessication, where I outlined the transformation of Santa Fe from a “village” (in fact a villa) with strong traditions of sylvan pastoralism and acequia-based horticulture, similar in many ways to that epitome of Iberian culture, Granada, into something I disparaged as an arts-and leisure theme park. While my dismal look at what Santa Fe has suffered, I believe, contains a lot of truth, there is something basically unfair and unhelpful about representing anything out of the mainstream as doomed to disappear. We hear it all the time about land grant communities, Native American culture and, yes, acequias. That such entities persist and adapt to enormous challenges is certainly the more revealing fact.

A burl on a weathered box elder stump on East Alameda.

On the playground of my elementary school, near the bank of the Arroyo de las Mascaras, stood a mature and solitary box elder tree. We knew that climbing this (to us) magnificent tree was one of the prohibitions on which playground privileges could depend, but the burls bulging from its lower trunk allowed us at least to traverse its circumference close enough to the ground so as not to bring down sanctions. At the time, many of Santa Fe’s loveliest shade trees were of this species, but it has all but disappeared from the greater city. Francis Elmore (Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Uplands) notes that box elders were commonly planted as shade trees because of their rapid growth, but that the trees tended to be short lived. No wonder the mature box elders of my childhood are long gone.

Middle-aged box elders on the Acequia Madre bank.

But there is another observation on which all of my field guides agree: the box elder naturally occurs along stream banks. It seems likely that Santa Fe’s dozens of acequias would have provided the “stream bank” habitat, and would also have distributed seeds from the box elder bosque along the upstream Santa Fe River. As the acequias dried up and disappeared – replaced by ungenerous water pipes – Santa Fe became increasingly inhospitable to this once widespread species. Not surprising, then, that my recent weeks of acequia stalking would have put me back in touch with the trees that so abundantly populate my childhood memories.

Phillip Bové, an Acequia Madre commissioner, allowed me a generous interview as I was preparing this post, and he gave me an apparently self-compiled booklet called Notes on the Acequia Madre de Santa Fe dated May 2007. In it, there is an unattributed text that reads like an address honoring the City’s reclamation of the Railyard. Details suggest that it was written by Bové’s wife, native santafesina Eleanor Bové née Ortiz, and it includes a passage of childhood memories that captures beautifully the complex intersection of historical and natural relations that is the post-colonial social ecology of acequia culture in Santa Fe:

In those days right before the Spring run-off the state penitentiary trustees cleaned the ditch. Even though we could see the rifles in the guards’ hands, we would sneak tortillas to the prisoners through the boxelder and pussy willows growing along the acequia’s banks.

As I continue to learn about the history of Santa Fe’s acequias, it seems fitting and not at all random that an acequia should be the backdrop for a scene of such basic human solidarity and (tiny) acts of resistance. And box elders make up the tissue of that backdrop. In continuation are a dozen recent photographs that show aspects of Santa Fe’s ongoing acequia history, with captions intended to situate the images within an historical context.

Situated just above the Randall Davy House (a.k.a. the Audubon Center) on Upper Canyon Road, is a remnant section of the appropriately named Power Ditch, appropriate both because it brought water to the Santa Fe Power Company generators and because it is emblematic of the water and power utility’s claim of a “paramount” right to appropriate the waters of the Santa Fe River. PNM, the utility’s successor, had its power checked by State District Court Judge Art Encinias in Anaya v. PNM, June 22, 1990. Judge Encinias affirmed the priority water rights of the plaintiffs – the Acequia del Cerro Gordo and the Acequia Madre – and ordered defendant PNM to release reservoir water for use by the acequias. Resembling the hull of a ship, this metal-lined section is approximately five feet across at the top; other steeper stretches of this century-old structure are unlined earthen ditch.
Most upstream of Santa Fe’s active acequias is the Acequia del Llano whose mayordomo, Mike Cruz, stands next to an old stonework support structure. Having destroyed its presa when constructing the Nichols Reservoir dam, the water utility eventually provided the Acequia del Llano with a pipe from the reservoir’s main output.
Looking down the back of Nichols Reservoir dam, the white structure rising vertically in the frame is the 24-inch steel pipe that conveys water to the treatment plant a mile or so down stream; the smaller pipe extending lower left is the Acequia del Llano supply.
From a buried supply line, this 3-inch pipe carries water to the old Acequia del Llano ditch; also pictured is Mike Cruz’s truck.
Here the pipe discharges its water into the Acequia del Llano which, except for lengths of 8-inch pvc laid into the old acequia bed, is a traditional acequia from this point forward.
Downstream from the Acequia del Llano, the next diversion is that of the Acequia del Cerro Gordo. Unable to meet with its very busy mayordomo, Mike Gonzales, I managed to sneak a photo from a driveway. This concrete-lined sections shows characteristics of the urban acequia, including use for storm water disposal as indicated by the roof drain, and the power cord and garden hose (lower right) indicating an unseen pump for putting water to beneficial use.
Beginning about halfway down Cerro Gordo road is the next Santa Fe acequia, the ancient Acequia de la Muralla, which rivals the Acequia Madre in longevity. Its name comes from its original course extending to the northern part of Santa Fe’s old city wall. The sand bags represent an expediency necessitated by the relatively recent deepening of the Santa Fe River channel due, among other things, to its use for disposal of storm water shed by an increasing area of impermeable surfaces such as roofs and pavement. Since the elevation of the ditch cannot be lowered, the presa structure must be built up to deliver water into the acequia.
Phillip Bové, long-time Acequia Madre commissioner, was active in the lawsuit that won injunctive relief for Santa Fe’s acequias in 1990. In explaining his decision, Judge Art Encinias said, “The people, the land and the water are intricately bound together and will be until Santa Fe is entirely paved over.”
An electric pump lifts acequia water to property on the uphill side of the Acequia Madre. Traditionally supplied by a higher ditch (Acequia de los Lopez) no longer in use, the uphill neighbors have arranged to maintain their water rights by “leasing” Acequia Madre water and pumping it up to their land.
From the Acequia de la Loma lateral, also called the Acequia de los Garcia because it used to extend to Garcia Street, water not used for irrigation returns to the Acequia Madre’s main channel.
Eleanor (née Ortiz) and Philip Bové at the gate for the Acequia de la Loma lateral on Acequia Madre Street and Calle Miguel.
Acequia del Llano mayordomo Mike Cruz points to the future and to the past in that paradox that is Santa Fe’s acequia culture.

Addendum: August 3, 2012:

In Death by Dessication, I discuss Santa Fe’s Comprehensive City Plan of 1950 as a telling document from precisely the moment when Santa Fe’s acequias all but disappeared. One of the Plan‘s illustrations is a Laura Gilpin photograph of the First Presbyterian Church. Right in front is the characteristically burled trunk of a mature box elder. I drove by yesterday to confirm its disappearance, but circling back around Federal Place, a route I take several times a week, as if a veil had been lifted, there they were! Perhaps because it has a more generous watering budget than other Santa Fe parks, the area around the U.S. Court House maintains several exemplary specimens of what was once one of Santa Fe’s most beloved trees. I’ll leave it for another post – or perhaps another contributor – to discuss the local social history of the innocuous but much maligned box elder bug.


  1. Thanks for the piece on Santa Fe acequias. Prior to WW II, there were still acequias all over the east side of Santa Fe, even as high up as Camino San Acacio. These fell under the development axe, and the disuse as a consequence of men leaving for war. Yet there are still bits and pieces around that can be seen. The current Acequia Madre still runs all the way out to Agua Fria village, to still irrigate some orchards there. Today, however, it only runs on certain days of the week.

    Sometime back, when water began to no longer ran daily during the growing season, there were trees up a few hundred feet south of the current course that began to die from lack of water. The acequias are not just some cultural atavism, but vital to the health of many old Santa Fe trees. Laterals are kept up, and still irrigate all over the east side. Indeed, the gate just south (and west) of the one featured in the photo of Phil and Eleanor just at Acequia Madre and Calle Don Miguel, carries water over to houses fronting on Canyon Road to irrigate several plots, mostly today containing fruit trees.

    • I should have mentioned that San Acacio, probably some obscure Italian saint, became, in New Mexico, the patron of ditches!!

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