To distribute the water, seven gravity-flow irrigation ditches known as acequias, five dams, and an aqueduct were constructed in a network covering over fifteen miles.
--David H. Brune and Con Mims III,
San Antonio River Authority, 1967
The initial success of Mission San Antonio de Valero, and of any new mission, depended upon the planting and harvesting of the first crop. Need of water for irrigating the fields and for direct use by the settlers gave priority to the building of acequias, or irigation ditches, more or less parallel to the river. The acequia system of irrigation had been developed in the arid regions of Spain by the Moors and was well suited for the Southwest. The word acequia is an old Arabic word adopted by the Spanish. Transported from Spain to San Antonio, the water distribution system of acequias forever changed the land, turning it from a place of wild game and Indian hunters into an oasis of gently-flowing tributaries tended by farmers and ranchers.
The earliest acequias were constructed by the missionaries and Indians, but the major acequia building activity was eventually carried out by the settlers. As the community grew, more acequias had to be built. The story of the Upper Labor Ditch, a major project in 1776, is typical of the process of acequia construction.
First there was a dispute over water rights. In New Spain there were constant arguments over water rights, and the archives are filled with volumes of court records detailing these arguments. In the Upper Labor Ditch dispute, the missions downstream claimed priority rights to available water for irrigation of mission property. The Canary Islanders brought forth royal decrees from their archives which gave them “free use of the water of the River for irrigation purposes” if the supply to the missions was not cut off. After the president of the missions was assured of a continued water supply, he withdrew the mission’s objection.
That cleared the way for Don Juan Maria de Ripperda, Governor of the Province of Texas and Captain of the Royal Presidio of San Antonio de Bexar, to issue his first official decree that approved the construction of the ditch and laid out guidelines for its builders. Included in Ripperda's decree was the stipulation that nopal trees (prickly pears), or other thorny bushes, were to be planted along the banks to protect the ditch from cattle. Ripperda made recommendations concerning the depth and width of the channel, and noted the water gates must have stone and mortar foundations. In order for his decree to be made known and executed promptly, Governor Ripperda "ordered its publication. . . at the beating of the drum at the door of the Court House."
To execute the governor's decree, the townspeople elected an "acequiero" who would supervise the construction of the ditch and be entitled to an extra portion of the land which was going to be irrigated.
Work on the acequia began in late fall, continued through the winter, and finished before spring planting. Governor Ripperda then followed the usual custom for dividing up the newly-irrigated lands. During construction the property had been divided into twenty-six sections of land of various sizes but of equal worth, according to a complex system that evaluated soil conditions, irrigation potential, and water rights. Twenty-six chances, representing the portions of land, were placed in a covered urn at the Court House. The names of twenty-four settlers entitled to land, and the name of the acequiero twice, were placed in another urn. Two children did the drawing, and the governor read the results determined by the luck of the draw. Thus chance, or suerte, determined which family would owned which plot, and as each shareholder received his suerte and took up farming it, the term suerte then took on a new meaning, a farm plot. Each man received his suerte as a grant from the King of Spain, with titles to be inherited by children and heirs.
Both mission-controlled and community-controlled acequias were constructed in the early colonial period. Missionary control ceased with the secularization of the missions at the end of the 18th Century and early part of the 19th Century.
The Pajalache, or Concepcion, Ditch is the oldest acequia in San Antonio. It was begun perhaps ten years before the Canary Islanders arrived, and served principally to water the lands of Mission Concepcion. A large dam near the present location of the Presa Street Bridge diverted waters south toward the mission on a rough parallel with modern-day St. Mary's-Roosevelt Street. The ditch was wide and deep, and the Franciscans used boats to get to town on it. The acequia's northern section was abandoned in 1869 because the Pajalache's high dam posed a threat to the city during floods. The southern portions continued to be used, getting their water from the Alamo Madre Ditch, until the turn of the century.
The Alamo Madre Ditch was begun in 1724 to supply water to Mission San Antonio de Valero. The ditch began at an eastern-most bend near the San Antonio River's headwaters, then went south through the mission compound, through the area of the current courtyard of the Menger Hotel, and finally split up into several channels south of present-day La Villita. At two points just east of present-day King William Street, the Alamo Madre crossed over the older Pajalache by means of aqueducts. When the Pajalache dam was torn down in 1869, the Alamo Madre supplied water to the Pajalache's southern parts. The Alamo Madre rejoined the river at several points in the present-day King William area.
Sections of the Alamo Madre existing today include a picturesque, elongated fish pond behind the east wall of the Alamo Chapel, part of a storm drain outlet just north of the Texas Rangers Museum in Brackenridge Park, and a 95-foot portion uncovered in HemisFair Plaza during Fair construction in 1968.
Completed about 1730, the important but flawed San Jose Acequia drew its waters from the San Antonio River just below its juncture with San Pedro Creek, then went on a parallel to the west of the river before rejoining it north of the Espada Dam. About midway in its length, the San Jose Acequia flowed around the north and east sides of Mission San Jose, supplying water for the mission's cattle herds and power for the water wheel of its mill just outside the Mission’s north wall. The system also irrigated about 600 acres of land west of the river. From the beginning, however, the acequia was plagued by washouts at its diversion dam, and after the Civil War the acequia was abandoned. Today, the best known aspect of the acequia is not the ditch itself, but the reconstructed mill at Mission San Jose.
The San Pedro Acequia was constructed to supply waters to the new Villa de San Fernando, probably about 1738 at the time of the construction of a stone church on the present location of San Fernando Cathedral. The ditch began at San Pedro Springs and
traveled south on a parallel with today's Flores Street until it joined the river to the west of Mission Concepcion. Constructed just a few years after the Pajalache, the San Pedro became the major water source for the Villa de San Fernando and irrigated land between San Pedro Creek and the river until the 20th Century. In the 1800s, the San Pedro Acequia was designated exclusively for drinking and cooking water, with penalties for using it as a bath or sewer.
The San Juan Acequia was begun in 1731 and has been watering farmland on the east side of the San Antonio River ever since. It begins on the east bank of the river, just across from Mission San Jose, and flows south. Berg's Mill was located between the acequia and the river; Mission San Juan is at the ditch's southernmost reach. At one time the acequia watered over 500 acres, and was operated by an incorporated company as late as the 1920s. A portion of the San Juan Acequia has been renovated and today provides water to several farms south of San Antonio.
The Espada dam, aqueduct and acequia were the last irrigation projects undertaken south of Mission San Antonio de Valero. The projects began about 1731 and were completed by 1745. The system still flows vigorously today. Espada Dam, the oldest existing dam in the United States, diverts water south toward Mission Espada, the stream crossing over Piedras Creek by means of the aqueduct just off Mission Road. Use of the Espada Ditch was discontinued in the 1880s, but in 1895 the Espada Ditch Company cleaned, widened, and deepened the canal, repaired the dam, and began supplying water to surrounding farmers, a function which continues to this day. In the 1950s the portion of the river containing Espada Dam was bypassed by a flood-control channel, but measures were taken to preserve the historic structure and maintain the water level behind the dam. Espada Dam remains today a major recreation area.
The Alazan Ditch was the last major acequia to be built in San Antonio. It was started in 1872, opened in 1875, and completed in 1876. It watered land west of San Pedro Creek, apparently a small number of holdings. The Alazan Ditch began at San Pedro Springs at the same point as the Upper Labor Ditch, and flowed westward along a course with West Ashby Place to the Missouri–Pacific railroad tracks. The ditch then turned south, paralleling the railroad tracks, crossing Fredericksburg Road, until it turned southwest into North Colorado Street at Menchaca. From North Colorado at Ruiz, it moved southeasterly to North Frio at West Commerce, then south along Frio until meeting the river near Tampico Street. The newest acequia left the least evidence. All areas served by the system have been developed and there are no portions of the ditch remaining.
The first acequiero was Angel Calin, a Canary Islander. The first American manager was Captain J. H. Beck, in 1850. When the city of San Antonio took control of the acequia system in 1858, John Fries was appointed ditch commissioner.
A modern, underground-pipe water system gradually replaced the acequias during the last quarter of the 19th Century, but San Antonio has never completely abandoned its historic ditches. Espada Dam and the acequias which continue to irrigate several small farms in South Bexar County make up the only remaining original, operational, Spanish acequia system in the United States.
--Mary Ann Noonan Guerra,
excerpted from: The San Antonio River,
(San Antonio: The Alamo Press, 1987)
Editor’s note: For further reading see Waynne Cox,The Spanish Acequias of San Antonio (San Antonio: Maverick Publishing Company, 2005).