Monday, October 16, 2017

Canales, Arroyos and Acequias

Although water is scarce in the high desert southwest – contrivances for diverting the precious liquid such as canales, arroyos and acequias are pretty ubiquitous.
In her book “Southwest Style” Linda Mason Hunter writes,  “Canales are roof drains or spouts that carry rain and melting snow off flat roofs to the ground, often onto a splash stone. They are important functional elements to adobe houses and Indian Pueblos as poorly designed or badly located canales could result in rapid deterioration of the fragile walls, which were, after all, made of sunbaked earth. Settlers made the earliest examples from split logs hollowed out and lined with galvanized tin. Some are decorated with curved or zigzag designs cut along their edges ... . Most are undecorated ..”

Based upon our brief experience with canales, I would reword the phrase “CARRY rain and melting snow off flat roofs to the ground” to read “SPEW rain and melting snow off flat roofs to the ground” – hence the need for a “splash stone”.
Even though very few of today’s Pueblo Style houses are built with adobe, the spouts are still an integral part of the architecture.  Our home in Santa Fe has six of them – all made of undecorated, paint-covered wood.  And Marsha and I are finding them much more entertaining than the downspouts that  shunted the much more frequent precipitation from the slanted roof of our former colonial style Connecticut house.  Really, which would be more fun to watch Niagara Falls or Niagara Pipe?
Doing a rough calculation using the website I am estimating that a one inch rainfall generates about 1,500 gallons of water on our flat roof – or around 250 gallons of run-off per canale.  Late last week that happened in about thirty minutes.
Watching our sextet of cascading cataracts makes me totally understand the purpose of arroyos – which the Drainage Ordinance of the southern New Mexico county of Doña Ana defines as "a watercourse that conducts an intermittent or ephemeral flow, providing primary drainage for an area of land of 40 acres (160,000 m2) or larger; or a watercourse which would be expected to flow in excess of one hundred cubic feet per second as the result of a 100 year storm event."
Or put non-bureaucratically, an arroyo “is a small steep-sided watercourse or gulch with a nearly flat floor: usually dry except after heavy rains.” (
Some arroyos are created naturally when overflowing rivers carve into surrounding rock and create ravines.  Others are man-made – sometimes out of large stones or concrete.
Our community, Rancho Viejo, has large numbers of each kind – several at the base of “Arroyo Canyon Road – one of our walking routes to the hiking trails – and none of which we have yet seen in operation because they do most of their hard work when it is pouring rain.  There is however a dirt arroyo under a section of Rodeo Road, one of the main driving routes to our house – and yes there is a permanent venue for the cowboy competition on the thoroughfare.  Every time we have crossed that overpass the gully below has been absolutely bone dry.  Then the day after our aforementioned one-inch deluge there was a light-brown onrush of water strong enough to support white-water rafting (if the turbulence was clearer).  Now I understand why the signs at the spots where arroyos cross over roads tell drivers, “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.”
Why you ask, in the high desert with so little water available do they devote some much energy to getting rid of it?  Well, northern New Mexicans actually work just as hard to transport snow and rain runoff, or river water to distant fields using a community operated system of canals called acequias.  The word acequia is used to describe both the ditch itself and the cooperative organization that constructs, manages and maintains it.  .  An association headed up by a “Mayordomo” and at least three commissioners governs water usage in an acequia.  Its rules and regulations are based largely on local precedent and tradition.
3,000 years ago the Pueblo Indians of northern New Mexico began diverting water for their crops (mainly the so-called “Three Sisters” – blue corn, beans and squash.)  And for more than 400 years New Mexicans have redirected water from rivers and springs to hydrate their orchards, gardens and crops.  The word acequia itself derives from Classical Arabic "as-sāqiya", meaning "one that bears water" – and also a "barmaid".  The Arabs brought the technology to Iberia during their takeover there, and the Spanish took it with them in turn to the lands that they conquered – including what is now New Mexico
Our new property is watered by a drip irrigation system and is part of a Home Owner’s Association rather an Acequia Cooperative.  This a deep disappointment to those of us interested in learning about and, if possible, re-experiencing true stories about the past.
We have however become members of, and plan to volunteer at, El Rancho de las Golondrinas, a living museum in Santa Fe, which interprets the heritage and culture of 18th and 19th century New Mexico.  The museum does belong to a local acequia whose water it uses for growing crops using traditional furrowing techniques and for powering their two gristmills.  Perhaps at las Golondrinas we will begin to literally immerse ourselves into what is now our local history.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very informative! Thank you