It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s the largest historic structure in Las Vegas. And it’s one of the oldest. The original Spanish colonists of the area began building it as soon as they arrived, in the mid-1830s.
What is it?
If you guessed the Plaza Hotel, the Ilfeld Addition or for that matter any other building, you would be wrong.
It is the Acequia Madre de Las Vegas, the mother ditch.
The Acequia Madre begins at the Gallinas River near Mills Avenue and runs through the west side of town, under Bridge Street, through culverts, alongside schools, businesses and trailer parks, eventually returning to the Gallinas at its desagua, or exit, to the Gallinas near the corner of South Pacific Street and Grand Avenue.
The acequia was one of the first structures built by settlers in the area, who were mindful of food security as a precondition for settlement. The acequia at that time provided drinking water as well as irrigation for agriculture, said William Gonzales, president of the Rio Gallinas Acequia Association.
“Acequia” means both the water-carrying ditch itself and the organization of those who participate in its use and maintenance. “Acequias” in this latter sense are recognized under New Mexico law as subdivisions of the state — in some places the local acequia was the government.
“In many communities,” Gonzales said,”the acequia governing board was the only form of local government in the community, so the leaders of the acequia were also looked upon as the leaders of the community, and many issues would be brought to them that were separate from the acequia.“
The acequia was and still is a communal institution.
“The community members who use the acequia work together to clean the acequia and allocate water,” Gonzales said, “so its like a mini-neighborhood in comparison to the municipality. The system of communal relationship still exists between the acequia members. They clean the ditch together; they allocate water to one another.”
Acequia participation has since waned because of a variety of factors, including a decline in local agriculture and residential building on irrigated land. But there are still a number of members making use of the ditch, including the West Las Vegas school system, Gonzales said.
Caring for the Acequia Madre de Las Vegas and other acequias that now pass through urban areas presents special challenges, Gonzales said.
“Some of the biggest hurdles we have are having to do with easements and right of way to walk through people’s yards to clean the acequia.Some people are very resistant to allowing any cleaning or equipment access to the acequia,” Gonzales said. “Particularly in the Acequia Madre de Las Vegas because it does go through a lot of properties that are residential.”
And then, there is the garbage.
“That is something new to us,” Gonzales said, “having to constantly police trash from the ditch to keep it running smoothly. If we are able to maintain our acequias and keep debris from impeding the flows, it makes things a lot easier, so if we could encourage the community to be more vigilant about trash, it would help.”
“We’ve even had couches dumped in the acequia” he added.
Gonzales is working with local acequias to meet future challenges. The association will be working with local acequias this year to develop capital improvement plans so they can go to the state Legislature for funding of infrastructure improvements.
“An initiative we are hoping to start this year, Gonzales said, “is neighborhood gardens for people who are interested in gardening but don’t have access to an acequia or land to do it. I have received a positive response from the acequias to neighborhood gardens where a person with land and water rights could make available a small portion of their land to people to come in and help with gardening, and we hope also through that to promote a better understanding and appreciation of the acequia system.”
“Of course,” Gonzales continued, “I’m also involved in the farmers market and so I’d really like to promote these kinds of activities. Not only is it healthier to grow our own food locally but given our current economic situation, decentralization of agriculture and agribusiness is really important. I see a big resurgence of local agriculture both because of the economic situation but also because of these scares with spinach, peanut butter and other problems with the food system. “
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Maria Eva Martinez grew up near the acequia, and remembers how it was when the Acequia Madre was in greater use. Her father, Jesus Martinez, owned a combination gas station, bar and restaurant on Grand Avenue when there was nothing else on Grand between South Pacific and Alamo Street.
Maria said her father had water rights on the acequia and grew almost all of what they ate and what they served at the restaurant.
“He’d dig trenches down from the acequia, and he grew corn pumpkins and all. Squash, corn, pinto beans, onions, radishes, we never bought anything, just hamburger meat. We’d dry everything for winter, pumpkins, green chiles, jerky. My dad had no education, but he was so smart it was amazing. This young generation, if there was a depression they would probably die, but we still cook a lot of the stuff like when my mom and dad were alive.”