The old acequias, or irrigation ditches, of Santa Fe are almost things of the past, but the Acequia Madre, Mother Ditch, still flows along the street that bears its name and reminds us of what was once a vital part of the city's existence.
In the southeast section of Santa Fe, this acequia is still important to many persons who use its water to irrigate their fruit trees and grazing lands.
Ditch irrigation had been used in the arid regions of Spain, as well as by Indians of the Southwest. When the Spanish colonists came, they brought both the engineering knowledge and a body of irrigation law necessary to build and regulate water systems throughout the province of New Mexico. For more than 300 years these acequia systems have operated effectively. In rural areas and many towns they are still maintained and cherished.
Shortly after the founding of Santa Fe, both the acequia madre on the south side of town and the acequia de la mural/a skirting the low hills on the north were built to provide water for irrigation and the domestic needs of the community. In the Urrutia map of the 1760s, the line of the northern acequia may be traced along the early wall, or muralla, which helped fortify the city, at the approximate location of present Hillside Avenue. In the early Spanish period, water for the Palace of the Governors came from two acequias that apparently ran from the cienega, or springs, to the east. One flowed down present Palace Avenue in front of the building; the other watered gardens in the rear. By cutting off the water from these acequias, the Indians forced the Spaniards to evacuate in the Pueblo Revolt and by the same method, de Vargas drove the Indians out of the Palace in 1693. Later other acequias carried water to the ecclesiastical lands and adjoining property in the city.
Few recognizable traces of these acequias remain, but the Acequia Madre has never ceased to flow, and it is still governed by the old Spanish laws, with a mayordomo de la acequia and three commissioners to supervise its upkeep. An annual fee is paid by all property owners along the ditch who still hold water rights, and it is their duty to help clean out the acequia in the spring, as well as to assist when further help is needed during the irrigation season.