Spanish trickledown

Posted on | December 22, 2009 | 4 Comments

By Bob Galbreath

My wife and I travel a lot.  Some years back, when she was practicing law, she always wanted to include a visit to the local courthouse to get a feel of how the craft is practiced in other countries. Likewise, as I became more involved in the water business, I started dragging her to the local waterworks (if you’ve never been to the Water Company Palace in Buenos Aires, you must go) and making excursions off the path in parks and gardens to inspect the irrigation system.

We recently returned from an extended trip to Spain and, despite frequent forays into the shrubbery, it was not until the sixth week of our trip that I saw my first sprinkler. Virtually all of the irrigation in parks and gardens, public and private, was drip.

As those of you who work in Southern California irrigation may know, I have spent the last thirty-plus years promoting watering by drip systems in the southwest US. Only in the last five years has anyone looked up from fiddling with their sprinklers to pay much attention. So why has the attitude in Spain, a country with a drought-struck mediterranean climate like ours, apparently been the opposite?

Here’s my surmise: The Moslem name for the Andalusian region of Spain is al-Andalus. This was the westernmost extension of the Islamic empire from about 700 to 1400 AD. The influence of this heritage is still quite prominent. While much of Spain and southern France are still liberally dotted with palaces, castles and other ancient constructions, at least half of those to be seen in Spain are of Moslem origin. Indeed two of the primary architectural treasures of Andalusia are the alcazar (or palace) in Seville and the Great Mosque of Cordoba. I found hints to the answer of the drip irrigation puzzle in both these places.

It took many centuries for the Islamic empire to encroach westward along the southern coast of the Mediterranean until finally reaching across to colonize what we now call Spain. Their accumulated empire was composed entirely of arid lands. After many centuries in North Africa, they arrived in al-Andalus with a well-developed appreciation for the preciousness of water and methods for using it judiciously. 

For example, in the irrigation system in the courtyard of Seville’s alcazar, water from an existing Roman aqueduct was brought into the palace and distributed artfully to the orange trees in the courtyard by a series of very shallow, interconnected troughs. Not exactly drip, but perhaps we could call it trickle irrigation.

HISTORY records a similar concern for water by the Spanish in early California.  The zanjas and acequias of the early missions were dutifully protected and maintained. But the population boom of the early 1900s was fueled, in part, not by a reverence for water, but by the idea that it was limitless. This culminated in the attitude of William Mullholland’s famous statement in 1913 when he opened the Los Angeles Aqueduct bringing water to the San Fernando Valley from the snow fields of the Eastern Sierra: “There it is. Take it!”





And we did. Orton Englehart invented the first sprinkler in Glendora, California in 1932. A step forward for agriculture at the time, Orton’s invention was co-opted in the form of the sprayhead for use on suburban lawns after the second World War. Sprayheads, having none of the sophistication of Orton’s invention, waste about half of the water they use. But they’re cheap and so is water.

Or so was water.

Spain is experiencing a drought now, as we are. But, as far as I can see, they are way ahead of us in efficient irrigation infrastructure. Perhaps it would help if I put out a big pile of drip tubing at my next seminar and said: “There it is. Take it!”

Copyright (c) Bob Galbreath

Galbreath is a consultant, lecturer and workshop leader specializing in landscape water conservation in Southern California. A former licensed landscape contractor and certified irrigation designer, he has more than 30 years in the landscape business. From 2003 through 2008, he served as the Landscape Water Resources Specialist for the City of Santa Monica.

For more information about the drip irrigation conversion programs developed by Bob Galbreath for the City of Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment, click here. To see the stunning comparison study between a conventional sprinkler and lawn garden and a drip native one, “garden/garden” click here.

On Thursday January 7, 2010, Galbreath will be lecturing on the basics of landscape irrigation as special guest of the Thursday garden talks with Lili Singer, Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, Arcadia.

To investigate programs designed to help home-owners convert to drip irrigation through the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, click here and follow the prompts for your area.

Further references:

Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia by Thomas F. Glick, The Library of Iberian Resources Online, 2001

The Iberian Origins of New Mexico’s Community Acequias by Jose A. Rivera, University of New Mexico, and Thomas F. Glick, Boston University

The Art of Science and Water by Richard Covington, Saudi Aramco World, Vol. 57, No. 3, May/June 2006

al-Andalus Agricultural Water Secrets,

Water raising machines, Dr. Monzur Ahmed, Muslim Technologist, 1989

Moor Solutions for Green Living: An Andalusian Case Study by Jessica Kraft, UC Berkeley Extension Sustainable Design Program, 2008

This post has been updated. The headline was changed and the reference to Thomas F. Glick’s paper “Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia” was added to the main body. See comments.


4 Responses to “Spanish trickledown”

  1. Steve Bloom
    December 23rd, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    As your Wikipedia link makes clear, the Islamic conquerors arrived in Spain less than a century after the start of their expansion out of Arabia, so they wouldn’t have had much time to adopt and improve irrigation techniques along the way. See here for a study of how the techniques actually spread.

  2. Grace Phillips
    December 23rd, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

    Great article, Bob! I also visited Spain recently, and saw old and new attitudes about water collide. The irrigation does seems to have hopscotched over pop-up sprinklers, but the daily hosing of the streets seemed sort of crazy. While in Zaragoza we saw rotators in the sunken grounds (sort of like a protective moat, but dry) around the Aljaferia, the Moorish palace, that were actually watering the retaining walls of the palace and causing serious damage. All for a huge lawn that no one could reach!

  3. Georgia
    December 26th, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

    Great article. I, too, took notice of the runnels in Spain. See here:

  4. Western datebook: "There it is. Take it." | Chance of Rain
    January 4th, 2010 @ 7:42 pm

    […] a December article for Chance of Rain, Southern California irrigation specialist Bob Galbreath recalled the arrival of […]

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