Drought tests centuries-old New Mexico water traditions

ABIQUIU, NM (AP) – At the edge of a sandstone outcrop, Teresa Leger Fernández watches the Rio Chama. The river follows a diverse landscape from the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains through rugged basalt hills, layers of volcanic tuff, and the red and yellow cliffs made famous by painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

Here marks the genesis of New Mexico’s centuries-old tradition of sharing water through irrigation systems called acequias.

It’s also one of many places in the arid West facing increased pressure as drought spans another decade and climate change accumulates with warmer temperatures.

Formerly acequia commissioner and now member of the US Congress, Leger Fernández knows how difficult it is to tell farmers they won’t have all the water they need – or maybe not at all.

She talks about the annual limpia, or cleaning the acequia in preparation for the planting season.

“There has always been a sense of accomplishment, but now what we are witnessing is that we can’t do it all the time because we don’t have water,” she said. said during a tour with acequia officials. “And what you’re all up against isn’t your doing, is it?” But you have to fight to make all the water available to work for everyone in the community. ”

Some earthen canals have not received a drop of water this year, another example of parched western conditions. Like many parts of the world, the region has become hotter and drier over the past 30 years, mainly due to increased levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases resulting from the burning of the coal, petroleum and natural gas development and transportation.

Boat docks are high and dry in reservoirs around New Mexico, and Lake Powell along the Utah-Arizona line is at an all time high this year. A key northern California reservoir that helps water a quarter of America’s crops is shrinking.

For the mayordomos – those who oversee the acequias and ensure an equitable distribution of water – it has become a rush.

Less snow falls and warmer temperatures melt it sooner. The dry soil absorbs the runoff before it reaches the streams and rivers that feed the acequias.

Paula Garcia, executive director of the Acequia Association of New Mexico, avoids the phrase “new normal” because she has said it involves the stable weather conditions upon which the community’s ditches rest.

“We try to be quick and adapt as much as possible, but it tests what we can really call resilience,” she said, standing in the shade of the Santa Cruz farmhouse and greenhouses in Espanola, where rows of chili, corn and blackberries cook in the sun. “We think we’re resilient, but up to what point? We come up against these tipping points. ”

Federal water management policies have complicated matters as the needs of cities and other users overshadow these Hispanic and Indigenous communities.

Their traditions are rooted in Moorish ingenuity brought first to Europe and then to North America via Spanish settlers. These ideas of water sharing were mixed with an already sophisticated irrigation culture developed by Indigenous communities in what is now the Southwestern United States.

What has developed are little corners of paradise, with gardens and orchards that have supported communities for generations.

About 640 New Mexico acequias still provide water to thousands of acres of farmland.

Darel Madrid, president of the Rio Chama Acequia association, has not grown a garden this year. He wanted to lead by example.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Madrid, who would love nothing more than to grow watermelons again. “As long as we reduce snowpack and warmer springs, there will be a point where we can only rely on rainwater and the monsoon season. It’s gonna be bad.

After consecutive record dry summer rainy seasons, parts of the southwest have benefited from above-average rains this year. But the cards are still gloomy, with nearly 99% of Westerners facing some form of drought.

Madrid said some parciantes – or acequia members – are growing crops to supply regional farm-to-table programs and farmers’ markets. Others do it to subsidize income in an area where many live on the brink of poverty.

When water-sharing agreements involving some of New Mexico’s largest cities were first negotiated decades ago, Madrid said communities along Rio Chama were left behind. Now, as supplies are scarce, the acequias around Abiquiu have been forced to seek public funds to purchase water from downstream users. If there isn’t, they do without.

As long as Rio Chama sinks above 140 cubic feet per second, water can be diverted by acequias. Throughput generally plunges in May and rationing begins when it drops below 50 cfs. Aside from the isolated peaks of storm runoff, the flow is now less than half.

Madrid said the acequias would benefit from permanent water storage in an upstream reservoir, which would require federal approval.

“At the end of the day, we want to be self-sufficient,” he said. “We want to be able to take care of ourselves.”

Since 2017, more than $ 5.3 million has been funneled into dozens of community irrigation projects through the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. An additional $ 15 million in public funds have been allocated to acequia projects since 2018.

Madrid said state and federal officials were starting to realize this as more acquias organized and spoke out.

Leger Fernández noted that the acequias represent some of the earliest previous forms of government in the United States.

“What we’re trying to do now is preserve something the parciantes, mayordomos and commissioners have been able to do for 400 years,” she told the group gathered along Rio Chama.

Part of this means reinventing acequias without giving up the sense of community they inspire.

At Santa Cruz Farm, owner Don Bustos grows crops in greenhouses in the fall and winter, when less water is needed and evaporation is reduced, he said.

In Taos, acequia chefs have postponed the annual cleanup until the fall so as not to miss the early runoff.

Madrid is reminiscent of a futuristic comic book story where an elaborate system of pipes and ration cards is used to control water. He hopes that never will, but he and others have recognized that acequias need to be improved to last another 400 years.

Garcia said she believes that farmers, masters of soil health and seed conservators will always be in rural New Mexico valley, they will only have to innovate.

“There are still a lot of adaptations that we haven’t tackled yet. We’re barely seeing the start now, ”she said. “We are dealing with ditches that are centuries old and in another century they might look very different, but I think we will always be there. ”

The acequias have overcome periodic environmental crises, rivalries between water users and profound historical changes, noted Spanish historian and anthropologist Luis Pablo Martínez Sanmartín in a 2020 research report. He said survival depended on a conception of the common good based on cooperation, respect, equity, transparency and negotiation.

Leger Fernández kept returning to ideas of community and mutual respect as she walked through rows of blackberries at Bustos farm, never missing an opportunity to pick another berry. She also talked about picking capulin – or Virginia cherries – and roasting blue corn to make atole – a traditional drink – to share while on vacation.

“To me, acequias are the most perfect symbol of what we should be: a community,” she said.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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