The need for a little maintenance work gave a small group of preservationists and history enthusiasts the chance to walk through the 272-year-old Espada Aqueduct, the only remaining Spanish aqueduct in the United States.
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park Rangers gave a small tour to preservation advocates, sharing historic details as the group made its way along the stone bridge meant to carry water across a natural creek. When Franciscan missionaries came to colonize and spread their faith in Texas in the 1700s, they used Native American workers to construct seven acequias and five dams for the missions and the aqueduct to serve the mission lands of Espada.
Food and water needs at the missions called for an elaborate system of acequias, irrigation ditches used to channel water, said National Park Service Landscape Architect James Oliver. The acequia system back then extended 15 miles and irrigated 3,500 acres of land.
"We know the Espada Mission was established in 1731 and it was very important to feed the people," Oliver told the Rivard Report. "The missionaries knew they had to feed the indigenous people, so they started working on the acequia immediately, even before they started building churches and permanent buildings. The whole system was complete and operational by 1750."
Every three years, the aqueduct is drained so that it can undergo masonry preservation and cleaning, he said. Stonemasons replace mortar that falls out or gets damaged. In addition, park staff also takes the opportunity to get rid of any trash and seal any cracks in the channel.
The rare opportunity to walk the aqueduct was made possible by Mission Heritage Partners, a nonprofit that provides financial and volunteer support for preservation and restoration of the four Spanish Colonial Missions that make up the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Oliver, other National Park Service personnel, and National Park Service Archeologist Susan Snow gave several tours to attendees and answered questions about the aqueduct, the acequia system, and the missions as a whole.
"The whole acequia system works by gravity due to a very slight slope, and it blows me away when I think about it," Oliver said. "They [the missionaries] had to understand the elevation of the farm right outside their door by the mission and then they had to go upstream on the river far enough to build a dam at the right place so that they could take water out of the river at the correct elevation."
There are only two working acequias left in San Antonio, Oliver said, one at Mission San Juan and another at Mission Espada. Originally each mission, including the Alamo, had its own acequia, but most of them were paved over, converted into storm sewers, or otherwise destroyed.
"Out of seven, only two exist today and I think the reason is the Southside of San Antonio never developed like downtown did," Oliver said. "As the city grew up, the need for the acequias were less and less and other systems for water came along. But down here, there are still people farming and using the acequia. There are sluice gates, and when it's time to irrigate, a board inside the gate opens up so they can water the fields."
The Espada acequia is about 5 miles long, and the one at Mission San Jose is approximately 7 miles in length.
"That's a lot of ditch-digging by hand, and this whole system is around 300 years old," he said. "That's nothing to sneeze at."
Jeanette Martinez, who has lived in San Antonio for 10 years and is a member of Mission Heritage Partners, regularly attends events put on by the nonprofit to learn more about the history and preservation of the missions.
Being a member of the organization "gives me the opportunity to participate in events like this, other meet-and-greets, and get updates on preservation of the missions," she said. "It's just so neat. My family was born in these areas, so it's been a great learning experience."
For more information and to become a member of Mission Heritage Partners, click here.
For more information on the Spanish Colonial Missions, click here. To read about other events taking place during this month's World Heritage Festival, which celebrates the UNESCO World Heritage status through performances and special events, click here.