TAOS – There was singing, there was dancing, there was an art contest.
Throughout the day, there was call and response:
“Que viva las acequias!” sang Paula Garcia, director of the New Mexico Acequia Association.
“Que viva!” responded the crowd in the ballroom of the Sagebrush Inn in Taos.
“Que viva la cultura!” chanted Garcia.
“Que viva!” affirmed the mayordomos and parciantes who govern and own the complex system of irrigation ditches that delivers water to farmers, ranchers and others across northern New Mexico.
The unique form of self-government for acequias dates back hundreds of years, but the occasion of the Nov. 2 convention in Taos was to mark the 30th anniversary of the NMAA, the group that represents 640 active acequias across the state.
To its participants, the acequia movement is more than about protecting water rights from developers, miners and other interlopers; it’s about preserving a traditional way of life increasingly under threat from a modern world marked by changing weather patterns and ambitious youth.
Acequias are a tradition brought to what is now New Mexico and Colorado by the Spaniards. “What we have here is exceptional,” said Garcia. “It has survived under harsh conditions. We have to adapt to changing climate conditions. There are more droughts and more floods.”
A major challenge to the future of acequias is attracting young people to the rugged lifestyle often symbolized by the shovel used to clear weeds from the ditches that carry melting snowpack down from the mountains and into the fields.
“Youth are attracted to the cities. It was a problem even back in Roman times when they had to maintain the canals,” quipped Harold Trujillo, co-founder and president of the NMAA.
Maintaining the complex system of acequias is a litigious business, with legal battles being fought everywhere from local zoning boards to the New Mexico Legislature to the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Indeed, one of the awards of the day went to David Benavidez, a lawyer with New Mexico Legal Aid who has worked closely with the association on policy and legal assistance to individual acequias for nearly 30 years.
The mood at the acequia convention was upbeat, thanks partly to the election of Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, whom the water rights holders see as an ally. Under the new administration, the Legislature approved a bill that paved the way for online notices of water transfers, the creation of the Acequia and Community Ditch Infrastructure Fund providing for recurring annual funding of $2.5 million, and legislation that clarified the approval process for water leases by acequias.
“The year 2019 has been a magic year,” Garcia told the Congreso.
Befitting the Day of the Dead weekend on which the Congreso was held, the NMAA built an altar honoring the heroes of its movement, including New Mexico State Sen. Carlos Cisneros, who died on Sept. 17 at the age of 71. He was the sponsor of numerous bills going back to 1989, when he sponsored a memorial recognizing the founding of NMAA. “Over the years, he sponsored more than a dozen bills on our behalf and shepherded them through the Legislature,” Garcia said.
Many of the acequias were carved out on land grants from the Spanish crown, including parcels that today are in the Carson, Cibola and Santa Fe national forests. Not surprisingly, acequias can find themselves at odds with the feds. For instance, if an acequia wants a new headgate, it may require an archaeological and scientific assessment from the federal government before it is free to install it.
At the Sagebrush Inn, it was all smiles, though, as employees from the Carson National Forest came on stage with summer interns from local communities who were part of a project to map acequias using GPS technology with help from UNM-Taos.
“Community is something we need to keep alive,” said Carson National Forest employee Juana Rosas.
In addition to forest service internships, young people interested in the acequia movement can apply for summer jobs at a farm run by the NMAA in Chamisal.
One of the trainers at the center, Corilia Ortega, lamented the male-dominated acequia culture. “When you think about the future of your acequia, think about your daughters and your nieces,” Ortega told the audience at the Sagebrush Inn. “We don’t need your permission to clear out the ditches, but we need your training and help.”
Typical of the local battles that envelop acequias is one going on in Española, where a Sonic Drive-In wants to move from one side of U.S. 84/285 to the other. Steve Jaramillo, chairman of the Acequia de los Garcias, has been active in the fight against the move. He’s against the change because of the danger that laterals in his acequia and in the Ortega Community Ditch may be contaminated by motor oil from traffic going through a drive-thru proposed for the new fast-food restaurant.
Representatives of Sonic and the affected acequias have been meeting to come up with a maintenance agreement to protect water quality, but Jaramillo said parciantes are still not satisfied that water used by local farmers won’t end up contaminated. The issue involves the federal government because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for certifying organic produce.
A representative of a company involved in the Sonic project recently told the Rio Grande Sun that the Sonic is losing its lease at the current location, wants to be a good neighbor and continue to provide local jobs, and will follow all city codes and the Planning Commission’s conditions for approval.