A Ditch in Time

May 15, 2017

A Case Study of the Spanish Colonial Acequias in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park



Water Restrictions


On Saturday I am allowed to water my yard. If I miss Saturday, I have to wait until Wednesday before I can water it next, and my back yard garden can't tolerate a whole week with no water in the blazing heat of a Texas summer. That is the ordinance in my home in the Fort Worth suburbs to make sure there is enough water to go around.  It is an incredibly fast-growing urban area near the 16th largest city in the United States. I also live in the desert southwest where droughts have lasted years, only to be followed by floods. Currently we are enjoying a time of no drought, but the water restrictions remain, and it is annoying.


Road Trip to See a...Ditch?


When I decided to write about the subject of early irrigation methods, I started my research on the internet with a place I had been a decade before, the San Antonio Missions National Park, except...zzzzzz. What I could find online kept putting me to sleep.  I'm not saying the information was less than interesting (okay, some of it WAS less than interesting), but I realized what I really needed was to SEE how it worked, and that information was not available online. What did that mean to me? ROAD TRIP!  


I called the San Antonio Missions National Park Administration Building and was referred to James Oliver, a 25-year veteran of the National Park Service. He was nicknamed, "The Acequia Guy." A landscape designer by training, he had spent the better part of the last 20 years trying to get the mission acequias running again.  Acequias (ah-SAY-kee-us) were the Spanish Colonial system of irrigation. He agreed to meet with me at Mission San Juan that afternoon, so I packed by suitcase and camera, and set off on the 5-1/2 hour drive.  


A Path to Citizenship - Spanish, that is


In 1685 Texas, the appearance of a French settlement motivated the Spanish military to give the French a warm welcome - right back out of the country. Since the French settlement failed on its own, the Spaniards didn't have to resort to warfare, but they did realize they had to populate the land in order to hold it. The easiest strategy was to Christianize the native peoples who were already here. Once converted into Catholicism, the natives could be made Spanish citizens, then could hold the land for Spain. Spanish missions were established from Texas to California with the purpose being as much political as evangelical.  


Five Little Missions, Sitting in a Row


Originally, three of the missions were located in East Texas, but all failed miserably. There was not the right combination of friendly natives, good rivers, and flat lands to succeed. The missions were relocated a couple of times until they were ultimately established along the San Antonio River, five in number, and consolidated within a 12 mile stretch of river. The northernmost mission was San Antonio de Valero, established in 1718, but more commonly known as "The Alamo."  The next mission south was Mission Concepcion, established in 1731; then the Queen of Missions, Mission San Jose established in 1720. Next downriver were Missions San Juan and Espada, both established in 1731.  Native peoples, facing starvation and/or annihilation from other hostile natives, moved into the missions willingly for safety. Today the four southernmost missions form the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. 


Mission San Juan Capistrano.   Mission San Juan is the fourth in a line of five Spanish Colonial missions established along the San Antonio River in the early 1700s.   Four of the missions are still active congregations today, even as they sit among ruins.   Demonstrations gardens have been re-established at Mission San Juan as a teaching tool to show Spanish colonial agricultural and irrigation practices.  Photography by Linda Sanders 


Bringing water to the missions was a challenge as there were few consistent springs in the area.  Even the San Antonio River was more of a reliable stream than a river.  Seven acequias were dug with native labor, one for each mission, with two additional acequias for the people who did not live in the missions, such as soldiers and civilians.  


A Ditch Runs Through it


I met with Mr. Oliver who took me on a private tour of the Mission San Juan grounds. He explained the acequia system is an ancient form of irrigation. The technology originated with the Moors in North Africa thousands of years before the Spanish brought it to the New World. The San Antonio River Valley had the perfect geography for an acequia system as it was bowl-shaped and almost flat as a pancake.  


An acequia is simply a ditch dug from a water source to the area to be irrigated. Ideally, one could just go to a riverbank and start digging a channel into a field for irrigation, but rarely is it that easy. The San Antonio River Valley is about 20 feet above the level of the river. Surveying upstream had to be done until the water level and ground level were about the same. From that point a ditch could be dug parallel to the river down to the fields, then a dam built to pool the water to force it into the ditch. This ditch was called the acequia madre (mother ditch). It was the main ditch, and was a couple of feet wide and several miles long. While the river elevation dropped dramatically, the acequia levels dropped very gradually. The water depth varied greatly in the acequia, from about three feet deep at the head to about eight inches in the fields several miles away.  


Red Light, Green Light


Once the water gets to the field area, there is a sluice for diverting water. I think of it as a highway intersection with cars stopping until the light turns green, then moving forward with every direction taking its turn. The sluice is exactly like that, except instead of a signal light, there is a simple door that slides down into a groove stopping the water on each of the four sides. The direction, and amount, of flow is easily managed by lifting a door a little or a lot. Closing the doors can build up pressure. It is very low-tech, but effective.  


Acequia madre and sluice.  Each mission had its own acequia madre (Mother Ditch), which was the “highway” from the river to the fields.  A sluice changed the direction of the water by means of a simple gate. This sluice directs water from the San Juan acequia madre to the laterals which water the demonstration gardens in the distance. Photography by Linda Sanders


When the sluice walls are raised, the water flows from the acequia madre into the laterals, smaller channels that lead perpendicular to the river, into the fields or gardens. Berms, or mounded, packed hills, also direct water, or prevent it from overflowing the laterals. There are berms between the river and the acequias parallel to it, but they often get washed out in heavy storms. When this happens, the water has to be redirected, and the berms rebuilt and repacked, then the water directed back into the acequia.


That's a Real Turn Off


A desague (des AH gway) is a ditch that flows from the acequia madre perpendicular back to the river.  It also has a sluice and is used as a "turn-off" valve to redirect the water during times when the acequia needs to be repaired or have maintenance work done. This prevents the water from being wasted. When a field is fully watered excess water is also directed back to the river.   Conservation is key.




What would one do if he were digging a lateral ditch from the acequia madre to the field or garden, and came to a part of the land that is low, such as a dip or shallow stream? Gravity is going to prevent the water from moving forward. During archaeological research, it was discovered that when this situation occurred, the lateral ditches were redirected at 90 degree angles following the dip or stream bed until the elevation was the same. The ditch would be cut across the stream and return down the opposite side. On a topographical map this looks like a heart monitor blip.  This occurrence has a very scientific name, "Wowie". Mr. Oliver discovered the phenomenon, and got the privilege of naming it. When looking on a map, he exclaimed, "Wow, that was smart!" and the name stuck. There were several wowies on the acequia line at Mission San Juan, however, not all streams can be crossed in this manner.  


Deep and Wide, Deep and Wide, There is a Creek Flowing Deep and Wide


At Mission Espada, a few miles south, the acequia had to cross a creek bed which was too deep and wide for a wowie. Instead, another ancient water technology was used, the aqueduct. The Espada Dam was completed by 1745.  It still diverts river water into an acequia madre which is carried over the historic Piedras Creek by means of the Espada Aqueduct.  The unrestored aqueduct is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is the only Spanish colonial aqueduct in the United States.  It has never gone completely dry in almost 300 years of existence.  


The Espada Aqueduct has carried water over Piedras Creek continuously since 1745 with no restoration, and little maintenance.   Photography by Linda Sanders


Lucky for Them


The lands that the acequias irrigate are rectangular-shaped plots of land called suertes, which means "good luck". A suerte is the amount of land that can be watered in a day and is marked by a stand of trees between each suerte. These trees are protected by deed restrictions for preservation.  The mission natives were given the land when the missions were secularized, and some of their descendants still own the lands today.  


Spring Cleaning  


The acequia ditches are historically unpaved ditches that get filled with silt, tree branches and plant growth. Maintenance must be done on them to keep the waters flowing along the entire length of the acequia. Once a year, in the spring, every landowner along the acequia is expected to send a representative to clean it out.  On a designated day the community gathers for "La Limpia" (the cleaning). Everyone maintains the first three miles of length at the San Juan Acequia in addition to their own waterfronts.  Today, many of the small family farmers are too old to maintain the acequia, and their children are moving away. 


Effective, but Inefficient


How well do the acequias irrigate the fields? The acequia system of irrigation is effective, but not efficient. The process is flood irrigation, instead of drip irrigation. The five-acre field at Mission San Juan can be watered in about 30 minutes with one man opening the sluice gates, and another calling back to him, "a little more," or "a little less." Unfortunately, the water leaks out the bottom of the dirt ditches, evaporates out the top, gets sucked up by thirsty nonedible  plants, and sometimes stolen by neighbors. At nearby San Jose Mission, the acequias are paved to reduce leakage. 


Food,  Glorious Food


As we walked to the demonstration gardens I saw a thriving, but end-of-season garden in early September. Most of the vegetables had already been harvested, but there were still goards almost two feet long on the vine and some red peppers gleaming in the sun. Squash vines were four feet wide. Corn stalks were dry and bare, but beans were still growing. Historically cotton and tobacco were also grown. Mr. Oliver was pleased to have the mission records which indicated which foods were planted, and how much, although specific varieties were not known.  


I asked whether wheat was grown. Years ago, I saw the mill at Mission San Jose in use, and the interpreter had reported that it was not corn, but wheat, that was milled there. Later, a college professor argued that wheat couldn't be grown in South Texas. Mr. Oliver confirmed that yes, wheat was grown in the missions. San Antonio was about the farthest south that wheat could be grown, and it wasn't hugely successful, but it was a cultural necessity to mission life. The Spanish priests needed wheat to make communion wafers, because corn was considered to be substandard for such purposes. 


Wheat is still grown today for sale in the gift shops. Clearly, this demonstration garden is more successful than my back yard garden back home.  


The nearby San Jose Acequia powers the reconstructed mill, which was likely used to grind the flour and corn grown at all the San Antonio missions. Photography by Linda Sanders 


Water Rights:  Yours, Mine, and Ours


When water is shared the probability of conflict is great. The acequia water rights are not owned by the individual, but are attached to the land deeds. The priority date is the date assigned to the deed in the early 20th century based on land recording dates. Priority dates were renewed in the 1960s when the San Juan Acequia became a corporation. Mission San Juan has a priority date of 1731, making it the oldest priority date in the state. That means the mission can be watered even when other lands cannot. 


Mr. Oliver is also the Ditch Master, otherwise known as the mayordomo. The mayordomo was historically elected by the acequia members, with each owner getting one vote, regardless of the size of the land owned. How much water one gets depends upon how many shares one has in the acequia. The shares are based on the amount of irrigable acres one owns. The mayordomo's word is law. He makes sure everyone along the acequia is treated fairly and determines proportionally how many days, or hours, each property owner can water his land. 


The San Antonio area population has grown exponentially, and the San Antonio River is a small river, stressed to meet the growing demand. The acequia is also a comparatively small system. Keeping the acequias running is necessary. If the water rights are not used, they are in danger of being lost as the city grows, and more water is needed to meet demands. Water rights continue to be a politically charged topic. 


A Partnership to be Proud Of


When the San Antonio Missions were voted as a national park in 1978, the acequias had been destroyed, or were in danger. With modernization of the city, the San Antonio River was straightened to aid with the flood-drought cycle causing problems with the acequia flow. The discovery of mosquito-born illnesses, such as malaria, in the early 20th century caused concerns over the acequia systems, making them fall out of favor with residents. As the city grew the northernmost five acequias were filled in or abandoned. When an acequia was abandoned, it became a trash dump, but fortunately, for the San Juan and Espada Acequias, urban sprawl had not reached that far south before preservation efforts were begun. The San Juan Acequia was cleaned out and repaired, and the Espada Acequia was never completely dry.


To protect the acequias and their water rights, shareholders from each mission have banded together to form their own governing bodies, and reached out for collaboration with larger entities. The Espada Acequia shareholders have formed a private water company, while the San Juan Acequia shareholders formed a corporation called the "San Juan Ditch Water Supply Corporation".  Shareholders include: the National Park Service, the Archdiocese of San Antonio, 

the San Antonio River Authority, the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, Los Compadres - a "Friends" group of the San Antonio Missions, the San Antonio Historical Society and several private families. 


The San Juan Ditch Water Supply Corporation has become a model within the National Park Service of a successful partnership venture. The Archdiocese of San Antonio manages the four active mission churches, any completed buildings, and mows the grounds. The National Park Service maintains the mission ruins and any unfinished buildings within the mission complexes. The two entities hire their own separate architects, when needed, to maintain a separation between church and state funds.  


A partnership has recently been made with the San Antonio Area Food Bank to collaborate on the mission gardens. In exchange for being able to use mission lands, the food bank will provide the volunteers to purchase and plant seeds based on mission records. The food bank gets to keep the food for the needy. The National Park Service gets to preserve the acequia system and mission gardens and conduct educational tours of the grounds. The National Park Service has a five-acre field, of which the food bank will have use. Additionally, the food bank has recently purchased 40 more acres of adjacent land which they will develop for their own use.  


The wheat grown on mission land cannot be sold directly to the public without safe processing. A partnership with the historic Pioneer Mill, upriver, is working well. The wheat grown on the mission lands is sent to the mill for processing and packaging to USDA standards. The mill keeps a portion of it for sale, and sends the rest back to the mission gift shops for sale in a cloth bag, specially labeled as mission-grown. 


As mission descendant shareholders pass away or sell their land, the National Park Service purchases the land and applies restrictive covenants in perpetuity to preserve the acequia and mission lands from loss due to new development.  If the water rights were ever separated from the deeds, and sold like a commodity, the entire acequia could be compromised and lost.  


I thanked Mr. Oliver for his very generous time, and stayed behind to take some photos.  On the long drive home I had plenty of time to reflect on what I had learned. Just a few hours south of my home, water was much more scarce than I had realized, and I had never had to be that thrifty with my use of it. The reality of an expanding population with a finite water supply was a lot more sobering.  I wondered if I could make a miniature irrigation system in my back yard. At any rate, I won't be annoyed any more when I have to wait until Wednesday to water my garden.  



End notes:


James Oliver, National Park Service, interview by Linda Sanders, Sept. 1, 2016, at San Antonio Missions National Historic Park/ Mission San Juan Capistrano.


For additional reading on the acequia water rights, see:

"Restoring the Oldest Water Right In Texas: Land Grants Suertes, Water Dulas and Archimedes Screw Pumps" by Jose A. Rivera. University of New Mexico, Albuquerque NM 87131. Research Monograph #009, Summer 2000.




About the Author


Linda Sanders has worked for ten years at Log Cabin Village in Fort Worth, Texas, as a historical interpreter and in the museum store. She has performed first person interpretation since 1998 with Texana Living History, Texas Heroes, and the Dallas Historical Society. She graduated from Hardin-Simmons University and attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is a published photographer garnering both the front and back covers of "A World of Art," by Henry M. Sayre, and has self-published her photo journal, "Of Blood and Tears, A Cancer Patient's Stages of Grief; the Journey to Recovery". Texas is her passion, and she created a middle school-level homeschool Texas History course which she taught for ten years. Linda and her husband have three grown daughters and live in Watauga, Texas.


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