Acequias, or irrigation ditches, are found throughout the American Southwest. The word comes from the Arabic al-saqiya, which means “water conduit” (not necessarily for irrigation). The Moors, who occupied Spain for nearly 800 years, until 1492, were deeply versed in survival techniques from the North African deserts and introduced methods for water management to the Iberian Peninsula. In the sixteenth century, Spanish colonists to the arid Southwest brought with them a sophisticated understanding of irrigation systems, which in some areas merged with equally elaborate systems devised by pre-Columbian cultures, such as the Hohokam of central Arizona. Settlements throughout the Southwest benefited from this knowledge. Water from a primary source, such as a river, was diverted into an acequia madre (mother ditch), which usually ran along the uphill edge of a string of meadows and fields. The course of the acequia was interrupted by numerous gates or presitas, which divided the water into smaller ditches called regaderas that radiated through the fields like capillaries from an artery—a notion that the Spanish terminology incorporates. “You had to admire those first settlers,” writes William deBuys in his book River of Traps. “Without benefit of transits or levels they laid the ditch out so that the water neither charged nor pooled. They eased it along, although the land was not easy, transforming the valley into a garden.”

Conger Beasley, Jr.