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Acequias celebrate history and prepare for the future

New Mexico’s acequias are celebrating a major milestone: the 30th anniversary of the New Mexico Acequia Association. On Saturday, acequia leaders from around the state gathered in Taos to honor their ancient legacy and the acequia movement of the past several decades.

Grassroots action to defend land and water rights is deeply rooted in the acequia communities of New Mexico, as evidenced by activism and legal battles over land and water rights. The acequia movement coincided with other social justice movements in New Mexico, beginning roughly in the 1970s. This is an era of acequia history characterized by community organizing and political mobilization.

The NMAA was founded in 1989 when acequia leaders saw the need to advocate for their future survival in the face of such challenges as water transfers and water markets, the viability of small-scale farming and ranching, and the fragmentation of families from their land-based heritage.

By the early 2000s, the NMAA had worked with regional acequia associations in their respective watersheds to establish the Congreso de las Acequias, a federation of regional delegations of acequias. The Taos Valley Acequia Association was the first to join the Congreso and helped shape the next two decades of water advocacy.

The first two decades of the 21st century have seen an acequia renaissance, with hundreds of acequias revitalizing through updated bylaws, refurbished infrastructure, youth education, farmer training and a cultural longing to return to the land. We have also mobilized politically to change laws at the state and federal levels to recognize the importance of acequias.

State laws that have been enacted authorized acequias to have power over water transfers and water banking, giving acequias tools for greater self-determination. These new powers have been the basis of the Acequia Governance Project, which strengthens acequia governance through community education, technical assistance and legal assistance.

Other efforts have focused on youth education and farmer training. This has culminated in the Sembrando Semillas program to engage younger generations in the continuation of agriculture and land-based traditions associated with New Mexico’s acequias, and Los Sembradores farmers training workshops and other events.

During this same period, acequia leadership has sought to address such major challenges as drought and climate change, holding a drought summit and conference on climate change in recent years. The consensus among acequia leaders in response to water scarcity is to reaffirm ancient customs and traditions of water sharing and to embrace adaptations, such as seed saving for drought-resistant crops. This will be an ongoing concern while acequias also consider what infrastructure improvements are needed for both scarcity and flooding from extreme weather events.

The Congreso de las Acequias this year is honoring history and the mentors who have cultivated a new generation of acequia leaders.

Paula Garcia, of Mora, is executive director of New Mexico Acequia Association.

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