Our Water Matters

The Huhugam: Pioneers of desert agriculture

In a recent podcast called “Digging Up Ancient Desert Farming Practices,” host Janice Person interviewed archeologists Wesley Miles and Kyle Woodson about their work in Arizona to uncover the extensive prehistoric canal system originally developed about 2,000 years ago by the Huhugam civilization. Also known as the Pima and the Maricopa, these native groups form the Gila River Indian Community.

Some of the first canal systems in the area were built along the Santa Cruz River near modern-day Tucson about 3,000 years ago. The archeological work in that region, including surveys and aerial imaging, has proven that these canals “were invented independently” of developments in Mexico and Peru, according to Miles. “There’s nothing else like it in the U.S.,” says Woodson. “It’s one of the largest, if not the largest, prehistoric irrigation systems.”

These canal builders eventually moved into the Gila and Salt river regions and began building larger-scale canals between 100 and 400 AD. These earthen canal systems were designed to take advantage of the rivers’ two flood seasons: one in the spring when the snow melts at higher elevations and one in the summer with the monsoon rains. Water from the rivers was channeled into systems comprising at least one main canal with a series of “laterals” to irrigate various terraces. About 13 separate canal systems have been identified off the Gila River, all of which were constructed during the “Huhugam Millenium” between 400 AD and 1450 AD.

In more recent history, says Woodson, the Gila River Indian Reservation “was one of the first Indian reservations created in the United States” in 1859. The tribes settled there in villages where they shared the canals and built out farms that were understood as private property. Crops included the so-called “three sisters” (maize, beans and squash) as well as cotton. The Pima also adopted European crops, such as wheat. The Pima grew “literally tons and tons of wheat,” according to Woodson, in this “phenomenally productive area for agriculture.” 

Grain production quadrupled between 1860 and 1864 with more than 14,000 acres in cultivation. The end of the Civil War saw an uptick in migration across the region from the east, and many of these migrants decided to stay in Arizona. The Desert Land Act of 1877 allowed American settlers to claim up to 640 acres that had to be “improved.” Unfortunately, this usually involved the digging of canals to divert water from the Gila. 

According to “Re-greening the Desert” by Jim Robbins in the March issue of Smithsonian Magazine, western water law stipulated that whoever first used water for beneficial purposes, such as agriculture, owned the permanent rights to that water under a principle known as “first in time, first in right” or “the doctrine of prior appropriation.” This principle is applied in Texas, for example, when groundwater districts issue permits to landowners based on proof of their “historic use” of the groundwater. Despite their obvious claim of prior appropriation based on irrigation practices in use since “time immemorial,” the Pima failed to file the necessary paperwork with the General Land Office. The resulting invisibility of their claim under the law would have dire consequences. By the late 1880s, the Gila River had largely ceased to flow, and the once verdant riparian forests along the river’s shores were ultimately cut down and sold for firewood. 

With the water gone, many of the Pima were displaced by the ensuing famine. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the tribe had an opportunity to assert their historic claims before the Indian Claims Commission. After many decades of no progress, the tribe eventually funneled revenues from its casino operations into a substantial legal effort in the 1990s. Finally, in 2004, the Gila River Indian Community was granted an annual allotment of 653,500 acre-feet of water, the largest water settlement for an Indian tribe in American history.

A new 8.5-mile concrete canal has since been completed to bring water back to the reservation, and families are growing crops once again. According to Stephen Roe Lewis, the community’s governor, “Respecting water is in our blood; being water protectors is in our DNA.” Despite the brutal drought that is sweeping much of the Southwest, Lewis is hopeful that his people and their approach can be part of the solution. “We want to be Arizona’s breadbasket again.”

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He is also chairman of the Presidio County Water Infrastructure Steering Committee and president of the Marfa Parks and Recreation Board. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected].