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  • RG Staley

Water Democracy


Acequia – who knew?

May 14, 2015

In recent years, acequias in New Mexico and Colorado have successfully developed and implemented changes in state water laws to accommodate the unique norms, customs, and practices of the acequia systems. The customary law of the acequia is older than and at variance with the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation, and the statutes promulgating acequia water law represent a rare instance of water pluralism in the context of Western water law in the United States (see Hicks and Peña 2003). For example, the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation is based on the principle of "first in use, first in right," while acequia norms incorporate not just priority but principles of equity and fairness. This is evident in the fact that Prior Appropriation considers water to be a commodity owned by private individuals while acequia systems treat water as a community resource that irrigators have a shared right to use, manage, and protect. While Prior doctrines allow for water to be sold away from the basin of origin, the acequia system prohibits the transference of water from the watershed in which it is situated and thus considers water as an "asset-in-place". The Prior regime is based on a governance regime in which the members of a mutual ditch company will vote based on their proportional ownership of shares so that larger farmers have more votes. In contrast, the acequia system follows a "one farmer, one vote" system that has led researchers to consider this a form of "water democracy" (see Rivera 1998; Peña 2003). Acequia water law also requires that all persons with irrigation rights participate in the annual maintenance of the community ditch including the annual spring time ditch cleanup known as the limpieza y saca de acequia.

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