Seeing Water as a Complex System: Riding with John Fleck

John Fleck may be the only law school professor with a favorite ditch. And he’s on a mission to convince the rest of us to care about them too.

J. Nathan Matias
6 min readApr 21, 2023

If we care about the water we drink, the food we eat, and how democracies can make decisions about scarce resources, then John and his love of ditches are a pretty good place to start. That’s because Fleck is a journalist and Professor of the Practice in water policy at the University of New Mexico, and co-author of numerous books on the science, engineering, and politics of water.

Journalists and professor John Fleck along the Rio Grande river in Albuquerque

I’m a writer and academic who journeys through landscape, ideas, and histories on two wheels. And this week I rode along the Rio Grande with John Fleck to learn about one of America’s longest-running systems of collective resource management — the acequias of New Mexico.

Even in cities like Albuquerque, where there’s not enough water for everyone, few people have a sense of where their water comes from, John told me. When people do think about water, it’s usually a glimpse of the river while crossing a highway bridge. Beneath the steel and concrete is melted snow from the Sandia Mountains as it joins the river’s long journey from Southern Colorado into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Sandia Mountains, as seen from Santa Ana Pueblo, north of Albuquerque
Crossing the Rio Grande in Albuquerque on a recreational path for cyclists and pedestrians

Journalists sometimes talk about “shoe-leather” reporting to describe the work of getting to know a community. For John, who is trying to bicycle every single path, alley, and waterway in the Albuquerque area, it’s more like “pedal-grind” reporting. That’s why I was thrilled when he invited me on an early morning ride to some of his favorite places.

Our ride started, unsurprisingly, at John’s second-favorite ditch — an irrigation channel established by Juan Griego in 1708. Over three hundred years later, the ditch is still used to supply irrigation water to households within the city of Albuquerque — as well as provide a secondary protection from flooding.

The sides of these irrigation ditches (called acequias) are not just piles of dirt, John tells me. They represent layers of human cooperation over generations — the combined residue of material that flowed into communities, layered through the coordinated labor of residents, their children, and their children’s children who relied on the precious water to live and flourish.

zero-sum conflict is a self-fulfilling prophecy that doesn’t describe how to manage scarce resources

While acequias don’t have the same clear lines as tree rings, the material from each year adds another layer to the ecological and political history beneath our feet. And the story told by those layers of history is that competition isn’t the only or best way to manage scarce resources.

John is the kind of journalist who tries to stand in the middle of the Colorado River to make a point. In his book Water is for Fighting Over, and other Myths about Water in the West, his point is that the idea of zero-sum conflict is a self-fulfilling prophecy that doesn’t fully describe how to manage scarce resources. That’s one reason he loves the acequias of the town he now calls home.

The week I visited the Albuquerque area, the community of Placitas held a community “Ditch Day”

Since the the 17th century, New Mexico’s irrigation ditches (called acequias) are coordinated by an elected mayordomo who traditionally organizes water recipients to clear debris and pile silt onto the banks. This system was developed in North Africa, introduced to the Iberian peninsula by the Moors in the 13th century, and inscribed through colonization into the homelands of the Pueblo of Sandia in what we now call Albuquerque.

I teach these Islamic innovations in water management to my students when trying to make sense of public goods. Like all public goods, water is a resource that’s hard to exclude access, and it’s possible for multiple parties to consume it at the same time, even if there’s a limited supply. While people often see that as a recipe for conflict, the political scientist Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in 2009 for compiling the long history of cooperative resource management, including this medieval system that continues into the 21st century.

Reading the Landscape on Wheels with Words

John Fleck riding the paths of Albuquerque

As I bicycled with John along the paths and waterways of Albuquerque, I came to see our conversation as the gift of sight. As we rode, he narrated how he read the landscape as a journalist and scholar who traveled these spots as a child.

Pointing to a green lawn, John said “that’s a social justice issue.” Gesturing to trees in the Rio Grande’s floodplain, he explained that the forest would likely die of thirst in his students’ lifetimes. Noting the height of the river, he told me statisticians are wrestling to model flooding because this year’s mountain snowfall is unusually high.

“Do you know what this is?” John asked me, pointing to his favorite ditch, a channel connected to the Los Griegos acequia. This is the kind of thing he often asks passing joggers when visiting the waterways. Like Coleridge’s ancient mariner (and any writer seeking to explain systems that become invisible through use), John held me with a glittering eye and peeled back the layers.

John’s favorite irrigation ditch

Listening to John describe his favorite story felt like a friend showing me how to eat an artichoke for the first time. With the first bud, he told me about his childhood playing near the ditch, unaware of the long and mighty river nearby. He pulled out another bud, inviting me to imagine how the walls of the ditch grew taller with each season. The stories kept coming — the person who started the ditch centuries earlier, the growth of Albuquerque as refuge for wealthy people with tuberculosis in the 20th century, and their attempt to impose order on an unruly river with concrete dams.

John is working on a book with Bob Berrens on the Rio Grande and the making of Albuquerque, and as we rode, we discussed metaphors for complex systems. Is it an onion, a core sample, a network, a river (can a metaphor be self-referential?), or something else? We talked about classic writers of Western landscapes whose stories were beautifully rendered and falsely unpeopled.

As we discussed metaphors and John’s stories poured out, I nervously remembered something about the artichoke — as a Fibonacci sequence, its buds, in theory, would spiral into infinity.

But maybe the gift of an artichoke is the right analogy for the stories we tell each other about place, history, and community. Like the ditches of Albuquerque, so much depends on our ability help those who follow us see and unpack a complex system that continues through the generations.

Thanks, John, for passing it on to me.


Green chili stew at Frontier Restaurant, Albuquerque NM



J. Nathan Matias

Citizen social science to improve digital life & hold tech accountable. Assistant Prof, Cornell. Prev: Princeton, MIT. Guatemalan-American