“Mayordomo” in English means “butler” or “steward,” and when you see Miguel Santistevan with all of the other parciantes, or acequia members, running up and down the acequia ditch cutting tall grass and brush, he looks the part.
Santistevan lives in Taos on land that he inherited from his parents. He has an acequia running through his half-acre plot that supplies water to his garden, fruit trees and recharges the groundwater. He is one of about 200 members who get water from one of Taos’s 63 acequia systems.
“Aceqias are attached to Spanish lands grants. I am the heir to the land grant, and I’ve taken over the mayordomo duties,” he said. “To some degree I had played in the acequias my whole life visiting my grandparents, but I really didn’t know the history. Then I dove into my research. I got into their history and I talked to all kinds of farmers and mayordomos and acequia activists. I got a handle on what the situation and challenges are.”
An acequia is a system of ditches that feed off a water supply — in Santistevan’s case it is the Rio Don Fernando. The mayordomo is in charge of organizing meetings, solving disputes, cleaning the acequias, rebuilding if necessary and partitioning the water when it’s ready to run.
Santistevan said a key difference between how acequias manage water and how the state manages water is their unit of measurement.
“The state measures water in volume, which might work if there were a consistent water supply,” Santistevan said. “There are three times as many water rights on paper as there is in volume. They think water is a physical property thing, but it’s not. Water is a fluid thing.”
Janice Varela is the community organizer for the New Mexico Acequia Association and said the irrigation technique was also used by Native Americans.
“When the first Spanish settlement came in, they had brought the system with them from Spain, which was really a Moorish system, developed over 700 years in Spain,” Varela said. “What the Spanish brought with them was a way of organizing, and a formal way of partitioning the water. … They are looked at as community resources and the water is tied to the land.”
Acequia members meet twice a year to discuss new arrangements and address any concerns members have, Santistevan said.
On the day Santistevan and his crew are cleaning the acequias, Santistevan could be seen walking up and down a section of the dry acequia helping the other members and day laborers clear debris from the ditch and cut down any plants or material that get in the way of water flow. Santistevan said there are machines that can clean out the acequia, but he prefers to do it by hand because it keeps members involved. And by hand, he means, with shovels, rakes and some fire.
“All these movements in sustainable agriculture just put you in debt because you need to buy some sort of gadget,” he said. “I would rather flood irrigate with a shovel and my community.”
Varela said in 2003 a law was passed that anyone who wanted to develop property in Santa Fe had to bring their own water rights with them. That law offered people an incentive to sell their water rights to developers instead of keeping them in the acequia community.
“Our world looks at water as a commodity that can be bought and sold,” Varela said. “That’s the biggest threat we have is that we have no new water. Our organization passed a law in 2003 to change the structure where, it used to be if a person wanted to transfer their water rights to a developer, they would go to the State Engineers office and do all that. We changed that from the State Engineer and to their acequia associations.”
Santistevan said his job as mayordomo is rewarding because clean water is a precious natural resource. But his job isn’t always easy or predictable because the water flow depends on snowmelt.
“Once in 2003 I was trying to irrigate and the water wouldn’t even make it to the end of my row,” Santistevan said. “I was complaining to the mayordomo at the time and I told him, ‘Dude somebody has to be stealing my water.’ And he told me, ‘Miguel, this is just one of those years that the river is dry.’ And I couldn’t accept that as an answer. Finally he told me, ‘Miguel, I’m the mayordomo, I’m not God. There’s no more water. This is just a dry year, and that’s how it is.’”