Arthur Maspero points to the acequia that runs through his land, the same waterway that his father used before him to irrigate crops to be sold downtown.
Arthur Maspero points to the acequia that runs through his land, the same waterway that his father used before him to irrigate crops to feed his family and sell at the downtown market. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Asked how he became the ditch commissioner for the Espada Acequia, Arthur Maspero seemed a bit confused by the question.

“I didn’t become,” said the 81-year-old former farmer, veteran, and retired road striper who lives on Espada Road on San Antonio’s South Side. “I just worked at it, my brothers and I … and a cousin and whatnot, and a few guys that we know.”

Hard work alongside friends and neighbors has made Maspero a keeper of the Espada Acequia since the mid-1950s. In this role, he resides at the end of a flowing stream of history that ties San Antonio to the land and its roots.

Here, as in other cities in the Southwest United States, water in acequias – Spanish colonial irrigation ditches – continues to flow to farm fields as it has for 300 years.

Of San Antonio’s seven original Spanish ditches, only the San Juan and Espada acequias still flow. Of those two, only the Espada acequia still functions as originally designed, diverting water from the San Antonio River via a historic dam.

That technically makes Arthur Maspero the last authentic ditch commissioner in San Antonio, though the title doesn’t mean what it used to.

“It’s just, like, a thing of the past,” Maspero said. “But it’s still there and it still works.”

The Espada Acequia that runs through Arthur Maspero's land.
The Espada Acequia that runs through Arthur Maspero’s land. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A Community Water System

San Antonio wouldn’t exist without its acequias. The waterways served as San Antonio’s primary water source from the early 18th century until around the turn of the 20th century, when the community-based system was supplanted by a more modern network of pumps, pipes, reservoirs, and taps in people’s yards.

Traces of San Antonio’s oldest water grid remain in the downtown area, from the remnants of the Upper Labor ditch in Brackenridge Park to the shallow swale at San Pedro Springs Park, the bones of the city’s first acequia. Acequias explain the strange alignment of downtown streets, many of them cockeyed and meandering, designed around the waterways.

Acequias also hide behind street names. These include Presa Street, named after the dam that once diverted water to serve Mission Concepción. Tiny Desague Street near the river is named for the relief channel used to dry out an acequia for maintenance.

“We have an acequia culture in San Antonio,” said James Oliver, a landscape architect with the National Park Service who was instrumental in getting the San Juan acequia flowing again.

James Oliver, landscape architect with the National Parks Service, gives a tour of the San Juan Acequia and the mission's demonstration gardens.
James Oliver, landscape architect with the National Park Service, gives a tour of the San Juan Acequia and the mission’s demonstration gardens. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

At one point, a network of seven acequias spanned 50 miles, the most extensive system in Texas. After the Spanish colonial missions were secularized in 1794, control over the ditches eventually went to the community that used them.

Early San Antonio residents set up ditch companies, in which everyone paid into a communal maintenance fund based on how many hours a month they could allow water to flow from the ditch onto their field. In this system, water wasn’t measured in volume, such as gallons, but in hours of flow.

In most cases, the ditch companies placed a respected figure, known as the ditch commissioner, in charge of enforcing these rules. They endowed him with the power to open and close water gates to shut off water to those who were taking more than their share.

“In today’s language, we would call them community-based water institutions,” said Jose Rivera, a retired University of New Mexico scholar who has written about San Antonio’s acequias.

“Ordinary people who organized settlements, they elected their own leaders,” said Rivera, who grew up in rural northern New Mexico, where a network of acequias more than 100 years older than San Antonio’s are still in wide use.  “They set up their own ditch rules, and it governed the whole system.”

The Espada Acequia would not be flowing still without people like Arthur Maspero and others who over the decades maintained the channel and cleared the mud, sticks, and rocks out of the acequia to keep water moving toward their fields, Oliver said.

“All the development in San Antonio moved north,” said Oliver, who also grew up on the South Side. “These kind of got forgotten. The farmers were happy with that and they kept doing their thing, so these two [acequias] stayed alive way past the others, and thank goodness.”

An Engineering Marvel

The Espada acequia is impressive in its reliance only on gravity. It starts at Acequia Park, where turtles bask on the concrete dam holding back a small lake that stretches past Southeast Military Highway.

Water from the lake flows into the old San Antonio River channel. An original Spanish dam made of rocks and brush diverts water into the acequia. From there, the water flows steadily downhill on a gradual incline. On Oliver’s topographical maps, it seems to follow a single elevation line, imperceptibly dropping as it meanders south.

The way the Franciscan priests and Native Americans residing at the missions built the acequias fascinates Oliver, especially the engineering trick they used to cross creeks. He calls these crossings “wowies” because that’s what he exclaimed when he figured out how they work.

“They’re digging parallel with the river, but when they come to a creek and feel the land falling away, they take a left and dig parallel to the creek until the point where the creek water and acequia water are at the same elevation,” he said.

At that point, the ditch would double back and cross the creek at a perpendicular angle. During wet times, that allowed the acequia to deposit its water into one side of the creek and withdraw it on the other side, with interest.

The most impressive feature on the acequia stands at the crossing of Piedras Creek, where the banks were too steep for a “wowie.” In 1745, the Spanish built a stone aqueduct to ferry the ditch water over the creek. It’s the only Spanish aqueduct left standing in the U.S.

From the aqueduct, the acequia continues winding south past Mission Espada, splitting in two to water about a dozen properties. The threads come together again at the largest ranch on Espada Road before what water remains in the ditch returns to the river.

The Ditch Book

At his small farmhouse on Espada Road, Maspero and his niece, Linda Bald, put a binder on the table full of yellowed pages from a crumbling notebook with a missing spine.

The pages contain the records of the Espada Ditch Co. between its founding in 1894 and roughly 1968. Many of the pages have tables with columns accounting for the water rights of all the people who used the Espada Acequia, along with meeting minutes and maintenance fee accounts.

For example: Twelve hours for Mr. Ashley, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the 1st of the month and 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on the 17th. Eight hours for Mrs. E.C. Diaz – 4 a.m. to 12 a.m. on the 4th and 4 p.m. to 12 p.m. on the 19th.

The pages also contain ledgers of maintenance fees for upkeep of the ditch. In 1895, the company’s first members set fees of $1 per hour of water rights.

For a time, Maspero’s father, Geronimo Baptista Maspero, whom everyone called “Jim,” got 22½ hours twice a month to water his fields on the small farm on Espada Road where his six children grew up.

Jim Maspero was born in 1898, only three years after a group of landowners first organized the Espada Ditch Co. at a meeting in the Bexar County Courthouse.

Primarily a farmer, Jim Maspero only made it through about third grade but had sharp math skills honed by haggling with produce buyers at the once-bustling market at Market Square.

“Them buyers, they get shrewd,” Arthur Maspero said. “They’ll come up three at a time and try to get you confused.”

Arthur Maspero still remembers the San Antonio River valley lighting up in the early Monday dawn with the truck headlights of farmers on the way to the market. “Everybody had little farms here and there,” he said.

By the middle of the century, that began to change. Small farmers couldn’t compete with huge growing operations in places like California or the Rio Grande Valley.

“People around the mission used to come and work for my father,” Arthur Maspero said. “But as time went on, it went down, down, down, so we just did the work ourselves.”

Arthur Maspero now a retired striper spends his days on his family land nearby Mission Espada.
Arthur Maspero now a retired striper spends his days on his family land nearby Mission Espada. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

At 22, Arthur Maspero joined the Army. When he returned, he kept up farming as best he could while also eventually working on a road striping crew for the Texas Department of Transportation.

Using the Espada acequia, Maspero, his parents, and his siblings grew vegetables on their own land: beets, turnips, corn, pumpkins, and okra.

Bald, 58, has vivid memories of her childhood there.

“I can remember the fresh tomatoes and the onions out of the garden,” she said. “They used to have us get the garlic and braid them. The eight of them, they all worked in the field. Us kids, it was more playtime than anything.”

According to the ditch book records, Arthur Maspero put in more than his fair share of work over the years to keep the acequia flowing.

One set of meeting minutes from June 4, 1968, says the company owed him $330.25 “for money he put out of his own to cover ditch cleaning that was done by the backhoe the ditch company contracted.” That year, the company was charging $10 per water hour.

“My old man used to get mad at me” for doing the work for free, Arthur Maspero said. “The ditch [company] didn’t have no money, you know. But if you got started doing something, you wanted to keep going.”

With so few people using the ditch for farming, no one keeps to the hourly system anymore. Maspero said he hasn’t collected any maintenance fees for three or four years, though he still occasionally runs water from the acequia over his fields to grow grass for the few cows he has, just to keep up the farm.

These days, the most serious acequia farming in San Antonio is being done by the National Park Service and the San Antonio Food Bank.

The Last Acequia Farm

In a plot of dirt separated from Mission San Juan by a line of trees, water flows from the endpoint of the San Juan acequia to a set of furrows between rows of crops.

Mike Persyn, a farmer who traces his roots to Belgians who settled west of San Antonio, leaned on his shovel, taking a break from his efforts to guide the water using mounds of mud, rocks, and pieces of wood.

Irrigating using gravity flow from acequias involves channeling water into the furrows, soaking it into the rows until the soil “blackens up,” Persyn said.

“The ground hasn’t cracked yet, but it’s starting to crack right underneath there,” Persyn said. “You want to catch it before it starts to crack. If it starts cracking on you, the water won’t go forward.”

Like Arthur Maspero, Persyn has tried hard to stay in farming, working on different farms and ranches around Central Texas and, for a while, at an electric utility company.

For five years, Persyn has been farming for the Food Bank, the National Park Service’s partner in the demonstration garden. Oliver said the garden shows mission visitors how the Mission Indians would have done the work nearly 300 years ago.

Unlike Espada’s acequia, San Juan’s acequia went dry for a time, after the failure of the San Juan dam in 1978. The fields near the mission were overgrown with weeds and brush when Oliver started his job at the service 27 years ago.

“When I walked in the door, my boss said, ‘Get the ditch flowing,’” Oliver said.

It does flow now, thanks to a pump house at the beginning of the San Juan ditch. Inside, three Archimedes screw pumps deliver water from the San Antonio River into part of the historic channel, then into the San Juan acequia.

“It’s been very rewarding to see it flowing again,” said Oliver, who officially holds the title of ditch commissioner for the San Juan Ditch Co.

The effort took the National Park Service years, with help from Mission Heritage Partners, the Archdiocese of San Antonio, the San Antonio River Authority, the City, Bexar County, and others. The pump house lies behind a gate locked with six or seven locks, one for each agency that might need access.

“That lock and chain is symbolic to me,” Oliver said. “That’s how many partners it takes to run a ditch.”

Aside from the demonstration garden, the National Park Service also leases 40 acres to the Food Bank to grow produce for the hungry.

These plots will be watered with drip lines that provide a more precise amount of water to each row. Acequia irrigation uses much more water than modern techniques, Oliver said.

‘The Great Social Equalizer’

Those who still care about acequias don’t appreciate them as much for their irrigation potential as for their place in local culture.

“The acequia is what holds the community together,” Rivera said. “It bonds the community because they have a mutual dependence on the system.”

Rivera described his own experience in New Mexico of the springtime dia de limpia, or cleaning day, when all those who had water rights to the ditch would gather with shovels to clean out their section under the supervision of the mayordomo, or ditch boss.

Everyone besides the ditch boss, Rivera said, is a peón, a word that has a similar meaning in Spanish and English. Whether a judge or a janitor, everyone is equal on cleaning day, he said.

“I call the dia de la limpia the great social equalizer because everybody on that day has the same responsibility, the same duty, the same status,” Rivera said. “Nobody’s better than everybody else.”

The Espada Aqueduct, designed by Franciscan priests and built in 1741, carries water in the Espada Acequia over Piedras Creek.
The Espada Aqueduct, designed by Franciscan priests and built in 1741, carries water in the Espada Acequia over Piedras Creek. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The Espada ditch culture seems to be slowly fading away, though members of the Maspero clan say they’ll continue to keep the water flowing. Maspero isn’t sure what he’ll do with the ditch book, though he and Bald, his niece, say the best place for it might be in a museum.

“Nobody cares about this anymore, but a museum would,” Bald said.

Mike Maspero, a cousin of Arthur’s who has put in plenty of ditch work himself, hopes that local institutions will make sure the Espada acequia continues to flow as it has since 1731.

“The whole thing’s amazing to me,” he said. “It doesn’t need to die. It needs to stay alive forever.”

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.