Is This a True Story?

Feb 10, 2017

In New Mexico, irrigation dates back to the days of Pueblo Indian farming, which makes it an ancient custom. Traditional Hispano irrigation depended on river-fed ditches where farmers used shovels to divert water from one ditch to another and from ditches to fields. This 20th Century photo of the remains of a 19th Century irrigation ditch was dug by workers with shovels using horses to carry the dirt to the top.
Credit Kathleen Holt / Kansas State Historical Society

Hello, Radio Readers!  We’re talking about John Nichols’ Milagro Beanfield War as the first book in our 2017 Spring Read, Water and Replenishment.  Set in New Mexico, the novel explores the conflict between communities of haves and of have nots, who, in this story, are divided by access to water and water use.  On one side, are those who want a dam to create a lake for fishing and boating and to stimulate a business economy; on the other side are subsistence farmers who need water for irrigation.

You all may already know this, but I had to do some Googling through various sources, so bear with me here.  First of all, I hadn’t known that irrigation in New Mexico dates back to the days of Pueblo Indian farming, which makes irrigation an ancient custom, right? It’s just that traditional Hispano irrigation depended on river-fed ditches.  Farmers used shovels to divert water from one ditch to another and from ditches to fields.  Beginning in the early twentieth century,  many New Mexicans advocated for engineered solutions for irrigation, specifically large concrete dams and levees and canals.   While such water management systems are more efficient, they’re also quite expensive to construct and maintain. Conservancy, or taxing districts, were developed.  Historically, in New Mexico, many subsistence farmers, unable to afford the taxes, lost land owned by their families for generations or forfeited their rights to water access.

John Nichols has written about the ways The Milagro Beanfield Wars is related to own experiences advocating with Hispano farmers against conservancy districting in the early 1970s.   Learning that landowners would be taxed to pay for construction of the dam and half of its maintenance costs, the farmers feared they would lose their land, which in turn would be bought up by real estate developers. Together with environmentalists and activists, the farmers formed the Tres Rios Association which eventually defeated proposals to construct the Indian Camp Dam.  Nichols notes that the conservancy battle lasted nearly a decade, while the characters of his novel didn’t have as long a fight.

For me, knowing this background, even in this obviously overly simplified way, makes that moment, early in the novel, when Milagran Joe Mondragon shovels an opening in an acequia not only a justified act of civil disobedience but an admirable shout-out for his culture, his family history, and his way of life. 

What about you? What would you risk for a little bit of water?

For HPPR Radio Readers, I’m Jane Holwerda, from Dodge City, Kansas.

John Nichols’ Afterword to the 1994 edition of The Milagro Beanfield War