By Juan Estevan Arellano

Farmers, like artists, have always been open to try new technologies in order to improve their harvest, soils or ways to preserve their produce. But how have these new technologies impacted the acequias? Since the beginning of recorded history, when new technology is introduced there has always been a conflict between the new and the old. For example, when the plow was introduced, the hoe was upset. The plow and hoe haven’t always gotten along, as can be seen in a very early trovo, “The Disputation Between the Hoe and the Plow,” which comes to us from biblical times. Here is a sampling; in the first one the Plow makes fun of the Hoe, then the Hoe responds that he can do more than the Plow:

Hey! Hoe, Hoe, Hoe, tied up with string;
…..Hoe, child of the poor, bereft even of loincloth;

“O Plow, you draw furrows – what is your furrowing to me?
You cannot dam up water when it escapes,
You cannot heap up earth in the basket,
You cannot press clay or make bricks
You cannot lay foundations or build a house
…..O Plow, you cannot straighten a street.

Today’s new technology runs the gamut from drip irrigation to hoop houses; genetically engineered seeds to social media. Most new technology also depends on how it is used and at what scale. Take for example drip irrigation, it can be beneficial to save water on a small scale but what effect will it have on a massive scale? Who benefits from the saved water? No one knows, but according to Professor Thomas F. Glick from Boston University who has studied the Valencian agricultural landscape for over 50 years, "Goteo (drip irrigation) is a fad. In Spain, it has resulted in wholesale abandonment of surface canals which has interfered with the hydrological cycle and changed local weather patterns to the detriment of the agriculture it was supposed to benefit."

A recent study (2008) at Cambridge University, edited by Partha Sarathi Dasgupta, “Water conservation in irrigation can increase water use.” On the Upper Rio Grande Basin he writes, “[a]s pressure mounts for irrigated agriculture to produce more crop per drop, there is a widespread belief in environmental and water policy circles that if irrigators made more efficient use of water then there would be more water for environmental uses and for cities.”

However, the study continues, “[i]n contrast to widely-held beliefs, our results show that water conservation subsidies are unlikely to reduce water use under conditions that occur in many river basins. Adoption of more efficient irrigation technologies reduces valuable return flows and limits aquifer recharge. Depending on the crop, water applied under drip irrigation is approximately half as much as under flood irrigation. However, crop Evapotranspiration (ET) is higher under drip irrigation…ET under flood irrigation is typically less than half of water applied; the rest either seeps to deep percolation or returns to the stream as surface return flow.” Besides, “[production costs per acre are typically much higher under drip than under flood irrigation.”

The study concludes that “[i]n river basins where downstream users and future generations depend on the unconsumed portion of diversions in the form of returns to the stream and raised aquifer storage, subsidies for conservation technology investments are unlikely to bring about a new supply of water but will likely lead to increased depletions.

“Our findings from the Rio Grande Basin suggest that water conservation subsidies are unlikely to reduce water depletions. . . These findings suggest that some programs subsidizing irrigation efficiency are likely to reduce water supplies available for downstream, environmental, and future uses. Although water applied to irrigated lands may fall, overall water depletions increase. Our findings suggest reexamining the belief widely held that increased irrigation efficiency will relieve the world's water crisis.

“Drip irrigation is important for many reasons, including greater water productivity and food security but does not necessarily save water when considered from a basin scale. A major question for efficient public policy is whether or not the increase in net farm income compensates the forgone benefits of reduced return flows and seepage. This is a question facing water science, water policy, and water administration. Where reduced return flows and lost aquifer seepage block another's water use, conservation poses a serious question for water rights administration because those effects are often hard to measure and often occur with considerable delay. Answering this question requires sorting out conflicting impacts of water application versus water depletion and an understanding of the transmission of those effects at the basin scale.”

What effects have modern communications technology had on an old system such as the acequias? Before, the parciante who wanted to use the water had to go and talk to the mayordomo in person, engage in a dialogue, always a learning process. Today, the parciante simply picks up the phone and calls the mayordomo and asks for the water. I don’t know if any text message the mayordomo. But that personal interaction and dialogue has been lost and as a result the acequia community is becoming more alienated. And as the communications among and between parciantes and mayordomos has declined, the infrastructure of the acequia has suffered.

Then there’s social media such as Facebook, which allows easier communication, but it is also possible for the wrong type of information to spread that might harm not only the acequia but also the community. There has always existed mitote, or gossip, in every community but now with Facebook, information whether beneficial or detrimental is spread globally at the speed of sound. There’s nothing wrong with embracing new technology, but start slowly, especially when it comes to the most valuable resource we have which is water. Last year a mayordoma said that her dream was to have every parciante in her acequia on drip irrigation. This type of thinking might be premature without further study. Let’s be cautious but not afraid of new technology, but let’s not turn the dream into a nightmare.