The repartimiento – a deep history of sharing water

Preparing for the fall class I co-teach, I was sitting out by the shady fountain in the old Zimmerman Library courtyard this morning, when I had occasion to spill carne adovada from my breakfast burrito on my copy of Jose Rivera’s book chapter on “The historical role of acequias and agriculture“. (Technically it’s my co-instructor Bob Berrens’ copy of the book. The page is still readable so I’m hoping Bob won’t mind.)

There are nested metaphors here – Bob shares the book, about New Mexico’s deep history of sharing water, and I spill one of New Mexico’s treasured foods, a rich slow-cooked pork red chile yum, upon it.* The only thing better would have been if I’d actually been sharing a burrito with Bob too, but no way, I was super hungry, sorry Bob.

https://cdn.loc.gov/service/pnp/habshaer/nm/nm0300/nm0325/sheet/00003v.jpg

Modern engineering attempts to describe the acequia madre in La Bajada, New Mexico.

On the page right after the carne adovada stain, Jose (who used to lecture every year to our fall class before he retired) talks about the repartimiento, or dividing of waters, at the heart of New Mexico acequia culture. It is a deep institution brought from Northern Africa by way of Spain by European colonists in the 1500s.

In his book Enduring Acequias, the late Juan Estevan Arellano explained:

In times when there is plenty of water, nobody really cares about measuring it or about how much water an acequia uses…. But in times drought, like in the 1950s and in 2002, acequias have had to fall back on the ancient tradition of adhering to the repartimiento de agua, the sharing of water, based on la palabra del hombre (the oral word of man) and equality. When repartimiento is in force, the comisionados and mayordomos figure how many surcos are in the river at that time and then divide the number of surcos among the different acequias based on the number of peones (which should correspond to acreage) each acequia has.

It’s worked for a long time, but the overlay of modern water law institutions spanning boundaries beyond the communities along a single river reach are stressing the system. “How long the repartimiento system will last,” Arellano wrote in 2014, “no on knows.” One of the points Elinor Ostrom, whose thinking guides our fall class, makes is the importance to common pool resource management of what she calls “cross-scale linkages” – the interaction of a system with those around it. Arellano’s descriptions of acequias’ difficulties at the boundaries is a great example – with the overlay of New Mexico’s water law system, and a bunch of newcomers “who don’t want to follow the custom and tradition”.

The linkages to be managed cross both space and time.

For completeness sake, there is a less-talked-about parallel to “repartimiento” called “convite” – a tradition of sharing of food. “That disappeared with the coming of supermarkets,” Arellano wrote. So no, Bob, you can’t have any of my delicious carne adovada breakfast burrito.

* If you wanna go full New Mexico with this, full bridging-our-past-with-our-future, the breakfast burrito came from Twisters, which is “Los Pollos Hermanos” in Breaking Bad. Sometimes this stuff writes itself, and I’m just sitting in the back hoping it doesn’t crash.

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