Acequias de Común: The Tension between Collective Action and Private Property Rights

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"The acequias (communal irrigation regimes) of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado have for centuries accomplished many objectives for the communities they serve, including enabling agricultural production, sustaining popular participation, promoting income distribution and equity, and protecting the environment. This paper asks whether these institutions can be sustained under novel conditions--global markets, immense development pressures and demands for 'efficient' use of water. "Historically, communal irrigation systems worldwide have performed essential functions of reducing the uncertainty of supply, mobilizing labor needed to construct and maintain the works, and preventing and resolving conflicts over water use. Adequately performing these functions has in turn created economic value for individuals and families participating in collective action and legitimized the institutions over time. Since the late 1960s, a growing literature on the governance of irrigation systems has demonstrated that carrying out these functions requires a high degree of local self-organization and control. "Political 'modernization' theory during this period asserted that successful development of nation-states in emerging countries would destroy or drastically alter traditional political institutions. Studies of the governance of common pool resources suggest that this may not always be so. In the acequia case, local control, not only of the 'works' but also of the water resource, stands as one feature vital to their survival. "Moreover, the collective effort that made possible the existence of water rights (and created their value) involves a mutual understanding of an implicit 'collective right' held by the acequia itself to preserve and protect the value thus created. This understanding is evident in the behavior of appropriator-members (parciantes ) of functioning acequias, although unrecognized in current water law. This is a second key feature of these institutions. "The paper's first section sketches the development of the Rio Grande acequias from their Moorish-Spanish roots, showing how they evolved by adapting to local contextual requirements during the Spanish, Mexican and American periods. It explores differences between Spanish and Anglo-American understandings about property rights in water and their impacts on various actors perceptions of the acequia institution. "The second section examines the acequia's contemporary status in their institutional environment, including population and development pressures, interstate compact and treaty requirements, various conflicting federal mandates, as-yet unquantified tribal rights, and the over-appropriation of New Mexico's surface waters. New institutional arrangements, including state and regional water planning and management regimes, water markets and water 'banking' may provide incentives to transfer historical acequia-based water rights to new uses, far from the 'areas of origin communities' where the rights were established. "Finally, the paper poses questions for further research regarding consequences of alternative decisions about institutional arrangements for the continued vitality or decay of acequia communities. These questions derive from our understanding of the features that have contributed to the viability of acequia institutions up to now local control and the underlying understanding of a collective acequia right. They also stem from the possibility that sufficient political will may be present (at least at the 'regional water planning' level in New Mexico) to protect 'areas of origin communities.'"



IASC, common pool resources, irrigation, water resources, institutional analysis, property rights--comparative analysis, collective action