Teresa Leger Fernandez stands at the Rio Chama’s edge, looking out over a sandstone outcropping. The river follows a varied landscape, starting at the Rocky Mountains’ southern edge, through rugged basalt hillsides and layers of volcanic tuff to the yellow and red cliffs that Georgia O’Keeffe made famous.
This is the beginning of New Mexico’s centuries old tradition of sharing water through irrigation systems called acequias.
It is also one of many places in the West that are under increasing pressure from climate change and drought.
Leger Fernandez, formerly an acequia commissioner, is now a U.S. Congresswoman. She knows how difficult it can be to tell farmers that they won’t receive all the water they need or none at all.
She speaks about the annual limpia or cleaning of acequias to prepare for planting season.
During a tour with officials from Acequia, she stated that there was always a sense accomplishment. But now we are seeing that we don’t have enough water to do it all the times. You all have to face the reality that what is happening is not your fault. You are still trying to make the water available for everyone in the community work.
Another example of the dry Western climate is that some earthen canals didn’t receive any water this year. The region, like many other parts of the globe, has become warmer, dryer over the past 30 years. This is mainly due to the rising levels of carbon dioxide, which are greenhouse gases, that result from the burning of oil, coal, and natural gas.
The New Mexico reservoirs have seen boat docks dry up. The record-breaking low of Lake Powell at the Utah-Arizona border has caused boat docks to be high and dry. The Northern California reservoir which supplies 25% of the U.S. crop water is in decline.
It has become a scramble for mayordomos, those responsible for overseeing acequias to ensure equitable water distribution.
Warmer temperatures melt snow faster and less snow falls. Dry soil absorbs runoff before it reaches rivers and streams that feed acequias.
Paula Garcia, New Mexico Acequia Association executive Director, avoids the term “new normal” as it implies stability in the weather patterns that the community’s ditches depend on.
She said that she was trying to be as agile as possible and adapt as quickly as possible, but it tested what we can truly call resilience. Standing in shade at Santa Cruz Farm Greenhouses in Espanola where rows of blackberries, corn, and chile bake in the sun, she stated, “We believe we are resilient, but resilient to what extent? We are constantly looking for the tipping points.
The federal water management policies have made matters more complicated because the needs of cities and other users often overshadow those of Hispanic or Indigenous communities.
Their roots are in Moorish innovation, which was first introduced to Europe by Spanish settlers. These water-sharing ideas were combined with an already sophisticated irrigation culture that was developed by Indigenous communities in the Southwest U.S.
These little pockets of paradise were created, with orchards and gardens that have sustained communities for many generations.
There are approximately 640 New Mexico Acequias that still supply water to thousands upon thousands of acres of farmland.
Darel Madrid (president of Rio Chama Acequia Association) didn’t plant a garden this season. He wanted to be an example.
Madrid said that “it’s going to get worse before things get better.” He would love to see watermelons grow again. “As long we have less snowpacks and warmer springs there will be a point when we can only rely on rainwater or the monsoon season. It’s going to be terrible.
Some Southwest areas saw above-average rainfall this year, following back-to-back records dry summer rainy season. Maps still look grim, with almost 99% of West suffering from some type of drought.
Madrid stated that some parciantes, or acequia members, grow crops to supply local farm-to-table programs. Others do it to help subsidize income in an area where many people live near poverty.
Madrid claimed that Rio Chama was excluded from water-sharing agreements when they were first made decades ago. As water supplies are limited, Abiquiu’s acequias have had to apply for state funding to purchase water from downstream users. They go without if there is none.
Acequias can divert water as long as Rio Chama flows at 140 cubic feet per minute. In May, the flow drops to 50 cubic feet per second. This is when rationing begins. Except for isolated spikes due to storm runoff, flow is now about half of what it was in May.
Madrid stated that permanent water storage in an upper reservoir would be beneficial to acequias. Federal approval would be required.
He stated, “The bottom line is that we want to be independent.” “We want to be in a position to take care ourselves.”
More than $5.3 Million has been channeled through New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission to dozens community irrigation projects since 2017. Since 2018, $15 million more in state capital funds has been allocated to acequia projects.
Madrid stated that federal and state officials are beginning to notice the increased number of acequias organizing and speaking out.
Leger Fernandez pointed out that acequias are one of the earliest forms government that predates the U.S.
She explained that she was trying to preserve “something that the parciantes, the mayordomos, and commissioners have been capable of doing for 400 years” to the group along Rio Chama.
That includes reimagining Acequias without sacrificing the sense of community they inspire.
Santa Cruz Farm’s owner Don Bustos said that he grows crops in greenhouses in winter and fall when there is less water and less evaporation.
Taos Acequia leaders have moved up the annual cleaning to fall in order not to miss out on early runoff.
Madrid recalls a futuristic comic story where a complex system of pipes and rations cards is used to control water. Although he is optimistic that this will not happen, he and others acknowledge that acequias are in dire need of upgrades to last for another 400 years.
Garcia stated that she believes farmers will always be New Mexico’s masters of soil health, seed savers, and farmers. They’ll just need to invent.
“There are still many adaptations that we haven’t touched yet. She said that we are only just beginning to see the beginning of it. “We are dealing with centuries-old ditches, and they may look very different in another century. But I believe we will still be here.
According to Luis Pablo Martinez Sanmartin, a Spanish historian and anthropologist, Acequias have survived periodic environmental crises, rivalries between water users, and significant historical changes. According to him, survival depends on a shared-good design that is based on cooperation and respect.
Leger Fernandez kept returning to the ideas of community, mutual respect and cooperation as she walked among rows of blackberries on Bustos’ farm, never missing an opportunity to pick another berry. Fernandez also spoke about how she collected chokecherries, or chokecherries, and roasting blue corn for atole — a traditional drink — to share with her family during the holidays.
She said, “To me, Acequias are a perfect symbol of what should we be about: a communities.”