Thursday, July 25, 2013

Spreading Water the Old Way

In New Mexico they call them acequias (ə-ˈsā-kē-əs), ditches that carry water from a river to farm ground. They hearken back to the ancients in the southwest. Our ditches (not nearly as romantic sounding as acequias) are only 130 or so years old, but they bring life to us just as they did for the pioneers when Europeans first came to this area.

I fancy the ditch out our front door as my very own acequia. It diverts from the Blackfoot Slough, a canal which follows an original high-water channel for much of its length. Our ditch then runs through a grove of cottonwoods and across the front lawn of the house. From there it sidles a giant black willow, goes under a footbridge and waters the horse pasture.

Flood irrigation is not the most efficient method of water delivery, but in the regenerative and sustainable agriculture world, it’s a star. It is powered by gravity alone, so opening headgates, installing dams or “checks” in the stream are all that’s needed to irrigate the ground. Heavy equipment is used at times to clean and repair the channel, but the system is largely dependent on hand labor once it’s up and running.  

Our ranch is surrounded by large center-pivot irrigation systems. Efficient, productive, modern, they’ve got it all - and the power bill to go with it. I would never say that flood irrigation trumps pivots; the “circles” feed a lot of people. But the canal system is valuable historically and culturally, if not for the ecosystem it maintains. It provides a summertime riparian extension of the river. Where pivots homogenize the land with monocultures from pavement to pavement, ditches help retain some of the naturally diverse landscape. Often lined with willow and cottonwoods, our acequias are beautiful and provide habitat for all kinds of creatures.

Another benefit of flood irrigation is that while underground pumping pulls water to the surface, the ditches recharge the aquifer, an attribute that becomes more important all the time. It must work economically too because we're still here. Five generations and counting.   

a four-way concrete "check"

water makes it way down a "land" at dawn

for the birds

dogs love to "change water" almost as much as they love herding


1 comment:

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