Case studies

Water Solutions

Case 7: The Acequia System of Irrigation and Water Management


Indigenous practices of water management are rooted in centuries, if not millennia, of shared and preserved knowledge and culture adapted to specific climatic conditions. Often, such systems reflect completely different notions of water than those reflected in northern cultures with capitalist economies. large_case7.jpgAcross the Andean region of South America and stretching up through central America into the American Southwest, the system of community control and management of irrigation systems known as the “acequia” has been in place for hundreds of years, originally imported from Spain, where it was in turn adapted from Africa and the Middle East, with origins thought to be in ancient Iberian and Roman practices. As a system of collective control and responsibility for irrigation systems in dryland and desert regions, the acequia has been adapted for use by indigenous communities, and offers an example of an existing form of community management of water resources for farming and sustenance. Acequia systems involve carefully constructed rights and responsibilities for those who are part of the common property management system involving all aspects of diversion, allocation, and use as well as re-use/recharging of water resources (Brown & Rivera, 2000). Rutgerd Boelens offers that in the Andean region, the idea of water rights goes well beyond defined terms of access and use, to capturing the right to democratic control over the management of water resources (Boelens, 2006). In the Andes, for instance, indigenous peoples use collectively controlled irrigation systems as a base for their dominant role in agricultural production for national food security needs – at the same time as they are consistently the most marginalized and impoverished members of Andean societies. In this context, across the various contexts where such irrigation systems exist, indigenous peoples’ rights to control water for the public good are consistently under threat by other legal imperatives for water that do not respect its sustainable use or indigenous cultural autonomy and legal systems. In New Mexico, where state law enshrines acequia systems and users’ rights as a priority based on the acequia systems and users’ rights as a priority based on the acequia principle of “first in time, first in use,” unresolved cases of state water rights have brought tensions between settler development and indigenous water rights to the fore. Spanish-language farmers have faced barriers to addressing grievances because of the dominance of an English language legal system through which they must press their cases, as well as their social marginalization and exclusion, a trend documented by legal services workers in the region (Meinzen-Dick & Pradhan, 2005). Acequia Associations in New Mexico are under further strain, reflected in recent cases pitting one legal tradition against a state and national legal tradition. A 2003 state law gives Acequia Associations in New Mexico the right to deny requests from members to transfer water. In a case brought before a district court in September 2007, two separate plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that this state law violates the U.S. Constitution, in the hopes of striking down the law and forcing Acequia Associations to violate their own rules by not being able to halt water transfers from irrigation ditches under their control. One of the cases involves a plaintiff’s desire to divert water for a new housing subdivision near Española. In the other case, 49 members of the local Acequia Association overseeing the Acequia del Gavilan decided against the water transfer, supported only by one member, the actual plaintiff, who is now seeking to overturn the association’s authority in court. The plaintiff, who would prefer that a state engineer be given the authority to decide on water transfers rather than the Acequia Associations, argue that water is subject to property rights as set out in the constitution. Paula Garcia of the New Mexico Acequia Association observed that the viability of the associations’ ability to protect their water rights was at stake in the deliberations over the 2003 legislation. In this sense, one principal dilemma affecting still-operational acequia irrigation systems across Latin acequia irrigation systems across Latin America and the American southwest is the continuing tension between contemporary forms of individual private property rights and their conception of water rights, and the more ancient forms of common property rights embodied in the community control model of the acequias.


  • Should water be thought of as common property or private property? What’s the difference?
  • How can local alternatives address the issue of unequal water rights – whether between individual users, or among individual users, government agencies and corporations?

Notes and Links

Beyond the references cited, see the following.