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In northern New Mexico, water is life

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The tools of the acequia trade haven’t changed much in the past 240 years. There’s the pala, or shovel, the rake and some wooden spears. However, these days the equipment of the mayordomo, who oversees the irrigation system, also includes a face mask to combat the spread of coronavirus.

Narciso Quintana, 82, grabs a tool from his truck before visiting a gate on the Acequia de Comunidad in Nambé. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

As mayordomo Narciso Quintana made his rounds in Nambé last week to make sure the first waters of spring were flowing smoothly through the ditches in the Acequia de Comunidad, the 82-year-old wore a mask to protect himself and requested visitors wear them, as well.

The role of the mayordomo in the acequia community is, as the Spanish word implies, part mayor, part accountant and part handyman. Quintana has been in his position at the Acequia de Comunidad for 30 years and oversees 100 parciantes who share water rights.

The first stop on a tour of the acequia was near the home where Ben Ray Luján, the U.S. Representative for New Mexico’s 3rd congressional district, grew up.

“You know Ben Ray, right? I know his mom Carmen. She won’t mind if we walk along here,” Quintana said.

A giant cottonwood towers over an acequia ditch that sits on the land of U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján’s childhood home in Nambé. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Towering over the ditch behind Luján’s childhood home is a massive cottonwood that Quintana estimated to be 150 years old. The leaves shed by the tree every autumn make clearing the canal each spring a challenging task, Quintana said.

“There’s really no place to put the leaves after you clean out the ditch,” he said.

The Acequia de Comunidad that Quintana presides over is one of 20 acequias in the Pojoaque Valley Regional Acequia Association and runs for three miles, he said.

The tradition of digging ditches to transport melting snow to dry land was brought by the Spanish to the New World when they colonized what is now New Mexico. Quintana said the Acequia de Comunidad dates to 1780 and is one of the oldest in the state.

Parciantes pay $18 per acre per year to use the water in the Acequia de Comunidad and another annual fee of $17, Quintana said.

Quintana, who is a member of the New Mexico Acequia Commission, said many real estate agents and potential home buyers often fail to understand the importance of acequias. “Without an acequia, the property value would drop by a third,” he said. “El agua es la vida! (Water is life).”

As mayordomo, Quintana’s job is to oversee when the gates open and when each parciante receives their precious share of melting snowpack to irrigate fields where food is grown.

In addition to scheduling water distribution, Quintana must arbitrate disputes. For instance, when tree cutters from the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative damaged a culvert in the Acequia de Comunidad not too long ago, Quintana said he helped get the co-op to contribute $8,000 to the acequia for repairs.

The Acequia de Comunidad runs through Nambé Pueblo, and that was the next stop for the mayordomo. Although the pueblo is closed to the public because of COVID-19, Quintana’s job took him to the intersection of three acequias on tribal land to make sure all was running well.

The gates to the three acequias – Acequia Nueva, Acequia de Llano and Acequia de Comunidad – sit relatively close to the road. They are certainly no place for child’s play or adult tomfoolery when the water is rushing.

Not far from the intersection of the three acequias, closer to Nambé Falls, Quintana said there is an area where the ditch is 12 feet deep that used to be fenced off. “We need to get some money to get that closed off again,” he said. “Otherwise, someone is going to get hurt.”

Such are the seemingly mundane concerns of the mayordomo, without whose tireless efforts the soil of northern New Mexico would remain parched.