Old-fashioned ways Old-time well system was a water solution - Brownsville Herald: Community

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Old-fashioned ways Old-time well system was a water solution

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Posted: Sunday, July 14, 2002 12:00 am

By David Robledo

The Monitor

ROMA A bakers dozen of historic wells bear testament to a time when South

Texas residents beat droughts by artistry and ingenuity.

We say we are now civilized, but we dont have water for farming or

ranching, said Carlos Rugerio, director of Romas Caminos del Rio historical

preservation project, referring to the ongoing South Texas drought that has

left local ranchers and farmers in dire straits.

But in the early 1800s, those who lived in the area had water for themselves

and their cattle, even in times of drought, Rugerio said. A system of wells

each about 20 feet deep and 15 feet wide once existed that collected water

from any incline, and deposited it in underground brick or shale cisterns.

Water is vital. You can endure much without eating, but not much without

water, Rugerio explained.

For that reason, the earliest cities were built near water sources.

Its a double-edged predicament. You have to be near enough to draw, but not

so near that youll be inundated with flood, Rugerio said.

Roma is built near a source of water. A well-thrown rock could hit the Rio

Grande from the towns historic Memorial plaza. Within 500 yards in any

direction from the center of the plaza, Rugerio can lead the way to at least

one well.

The wells known as aljives are remnants of a Spanish settlement known as

Nuevo Santander, Rugerio said a region that stretched from what is now

Mexico to what is now the Nueces River. Rugerio said the word aljive is

Arabic, and theorizes that the arid region of the Middle East must have given

rise to aljive technology. But the closest verifiable connection can be found

in the artistry of the Aztec city Tenochtitlan.

The old cultures of Mexico were agricultural, Rugerio said.

But the arid climate of Nuevo Santander made water management vital. Thus the

aljives were necessary.

They needed a system of capturing, conducting, holding and transporting

water, Rugerio said

The aljives were part of a system that captured, conducted, distributed, held

and transported water, and were built in the courtyard of just about every

home dated before 1950, Rugerio said.

He said metal pipes led from inclined areas to the cisterns. A close look at

walls of old Starr County buildings show exactly where these pipes fit, like

modern day gutters used for almost the same purpose.

In those days, they couldnt waste water. not one drop, Rugerio said.

Besides collecting surface rainwater, Rosa Gonzalez theorizes that the Aljives

were built at a depth that allowed them to draw water from the water table.

Gonzalez has an aljive in the courtyard of a building she recently purchased,

the Victory Outreach building in downtown Rio Grande City.

Her aljive sometimes mysteriously draws water, she said, even when there is no

rain. She thinks that a hole at the bottom of her aljive lets water rise up,

and holes in the aljives wall lets groundwater seep in.

She didnt know the structure had an aljive, until an old neighbor came around

with a cane and thumped on it.

Dario Trevino came thumping with his stick. He knew it was there. He heard a

hollow noise and marked it for us, Gonzalez said, explaining that Trevino had

lived long enough to have seen the aljive when it was still being used.

When Trevino found it, however, the aljive had been sealed with a four-inch

thick concrete slab, which Gonzalez said she broke through.

The first breath we took was cool. It was mystical, like the past was coming

out, she said.

Gonzalezs aljive is the only one known to have been completely cleaned out.

Others are filled with trash and debris. Some have even been filled in

completely, like the one on George Guerras ranch in central Starr County,

which he says his family filled in with dirt to make a huge tree-pot.

Cleaning out Gonzalezs aljive took hard work. But now that its clean, she

knows exactly what to do with it.

We want to use it for a wine cellar. Even a place where people can sit down

and eat, she said, referring to her plans to open a restaurant in the

historical building.

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