Acequias face challenges, uncertain future - Albuquerque Journal

Acequias face challenges, uncertain future

Tobias Lovato, who grows grass hay and alfalfa for livestock, walks near a Mora River diversion dam destroyed by flood waters that poured over the burn scar created by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. Lovato fears the damage will prevent use of Acequia de los Lovatos y Romeros during the spring irrigation season. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

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More than 600 acequias, irrigation ditches that are the umbilical cords of New Mexico’s rural-agricultural lifestyle, coil throughout the state.

This year, wildfires and/or flooding choked off 70 of those ditches, threatening irrigation in the areas served by them next year and maybe for years to come and, in the most intensely damaged sections, putting in peril a way of life that dates back hundreds of years.

Paula Garcia, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA), is optimistic that determination combined with state and federal resources can make the damaged ditches vital again. But she is haunted by the fear that fire and flood may have altered things forever.

“It is very jarring to go through a wildfire,” said Garcia, who, with her family, tends a small-scale cattle ranch and traditional vegetable gardens in Mora, which was at the heart of the 341,735-acre Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire.

“My family has been farming and ranching in the same area for eight generations,” said Garcia, who gets water from an acequia. “We go back to the Mora Land Grant. But this is life changing. I have never felt so vulnerable as when I saw our landscape go up in flames. I am concerned that the watersheds have been so damaged by wildfires they will never be the same again.”

‘Very sobering’

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, which burned in the northern New Mexico counties of Mora, San Miguel and Taos, resulted in 45 damaged acequias. The Black Fire, which grew to 325,136 acres in the Black Range northeast of Silver City, impaired 24 acequias. And the Cerro Palado Fire, which encompassed 45,605 acres in the southern Jemez Mountains, crippled one acequia.

Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, talks about damage to New Mexico irrigation ditches during a recent presentation to the Rural Economic Opportunities Task Force at the State Capitol. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Most of the damage occurred when summer monsoon rains sent flood waters cascading unimpeded over burn scars, filling irrigation ditches with silt, ash and debris and, in some cases bludgeoning ditch headgates and diversion dams.

“Each acequia is different,” Garcia said. “There is one acequia that was removed from the landscape. The erosion was so bad that it looks like nothing was there. There are others where only 200 feet (of a ditch) is filled with sediment. It will cost in the tens of thousands just to do debris removal and in the hundreds of thousands for more severe damage. It is possible in the winter and early spring to remove debris and get ditches reopened. But structural repair could take two to three years.”

Perhaps worst of all is the very real possibility that the nightmare is only starting.

“Experts tell us this (monsoon flooding) could go on for five years or more,” Garcia said. “That’s very sobering. This time next year we may be faced with trying to reopen ditches again. They are so important. People still rely on them for their livelihood.”

‘No easy way’

Acequias are subdivisions of state government, governed by officers. Some acequias collect set dues or assessments from users each year and others only take in money from irrigators to pay for specific repairs.

The New Mexico Acequia Association’s membership consists of acequia users and some individual irrigators. The association is funded by private foundation grants, federal grants or contracts, state grants or contracts, membership dues and donations.

“As a nonprofit, we do education, workshops on water rights, technical assistance and policy advocacy,” Garcia said. “When it comes to the fire, we have been working with the acequias to navigate the different assistance programs, doing damage assessments and helping with paperwork.”

Tobias Lovato, who depends on irrigation to grow grass hay and alfalfa, stands near the headgate for Acequia de los Lovatos y Romeros in Mora County. The ditch, normally about 5 feet deep at this point, has been filled in with silt, ash and debris deposited during monsoon-season flood waters. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Garcia said NMAA encourages acequias to apply for every form of disaster aid available, including Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Public Assistance and Individual Assistance funds, and to file notices of loss to get a portion of the $2.5 billion procurable through the Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act.

Easier said than done, however. Garcia said FEMA is difficult to work with.

“The FEMA staff is very kind and compassionate,” she said. “They do this work because they believe in what they are doing. It is the structure of how the agency functions that is difficult. There are a lot of hoops to jump through and there is no easy way out. We are in the thick of doing what FEMA requires us to do.”

The first hurdle was just getting FEMA to recognize acequias as public entities entitled to Public Assistance money.

“There was some doubt about whether acequias were public subdivisions,” Garcia said. “They have to provide their bylaws. We have established eligibility for about 35 acequias in the Calf Canyon Fire area.”

But things don’t get much easier even when that is accomplished.

“FEMA requires (the applicant) to spend money up front for repairs and then FEMA provides reimbursement,” Garcia told members of the New Mexico Rural Economic Opportunities Task Force during a recent presentation at the State Capitol. “The acequias may have $1,000 in the bank. There is no way they are going to do this work up front and pay for it.”

Garcia said the state Department of Transportation is trying to help by supplying up-front funding.

“DOT is able to use money from the governor’s emergency executive order to help local governments, and now they are starting to help with acequias as well,” she said. “DOT is coordinating with FEMA to make sure they are FEMA compliant. I consider that a major breakthrough. Thinking outside the box to make things happen.”

Technical difficulties

Garcia said the day-to-day work in getting assistance programs to work for people is challenging because many of the applicants don’t have internet.

“They don’t have e-mail,” she said. “Even when they do have e-mail, they have a lot of questions. We (NMAA) are the people they call. We are on the phone with them. We run out to see them. We actually fill out a lot of FEMA applications for them.”

Cristino Griego, 77, who worked as an educator for more than 25 years, raises cattle and grass hay in Las Tusas in San Miguel County. He is secretary-treasurer of Las Tusas Community Ditch, which gets its water from the Sapello River.

Boulders washed downstream by monsoon rains roiling over wildfire burn scars wiped out a diversion dam for this acequia in Mora County. (Eddie Garcia/Journal)

“I’m fairly efficient on the computer, and I have internet at my house,” he said. “In working through the FEMA process, I found a lot of glitches. I found it difficult. Other people found it impossible. They don’t have computers. They don’t have Wi-Fi.

“When you are 70 years old and come from a rural-agricultural background, have done day labor and construction on the side, you are not interested (in computers). Except when your grandchildren may want to play video games.”

Garcia is also a member of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, which has an acequia program and is the state agency that administers state funding for acequia projects such as construction.

But the ISC, like the NMAA, has not been involved before in disaster response at the level caused by this year’s wildfires and flooding. Garcia said neither the ISC nor NMAA is sufficiently staffed to deal adequately with such a catastrophe.

“ISC has been using state money to retain an engineering firm to do some damage assessment and cost estimates for rehabbing acequias, so that’s good,” she said. “But so far they have only assessed five or six acequias in the Black Fire area. They have not been to Mora or San Miguel counties.”

Garcia said she has repurposed two of NMAA’s 10 staff members to do disaster work and is using some foundation grant money to aid in disaster relief.

“We have hired two contractors who are out in the field on an almost-daily basis working with acequias,” she said. “We have other duties, other programs we are committed to, so basically we have four people doing disaster work. We are doing some fundraising and have asked the state Legislature to help us with resources.”

Kick-start repairs

Tobias Lovato, 66, of Holman, 6 miles northwest of Mora, grows grass hay and alfalfa for livestock. He sold his cattle before the fire because of drought. Forced by the fires to evacuate during irrigation season, he got no hay or alfalfa this year.

“This is not a one- or a two-year event,” he said of damage done by the fires and floods. “It’s going to be a good five to 10 years to recover. The whole community was scarred. People who still have livestock are going to hurt this coming winter and they are going to hurt in the spring.”

He is not hopeful that Acequia de los Lovatos y Romeros and Acequia Madre de Holman, Mora County ditches, will be flowing come next irrigation season.

“The diversion dams were destroyed by the debris and the force of the water,” he said. “We did small repairs to the diversion dams in 2008 and that cost $50,000. Now it will be more than $200,000 just for the diversion dams. That’s not counting clearing debris.”

He said he has applied for federal assistance and people have come out to take pictures, but that’s all that has happened.

Western Sky Community Care, a health care organization, has donated $100,000 for acequia repair. NMAA is distributing the money in mini grants to acequias to pay for contractors, equipment rentals, diesel fuel, work crews and other expenses related to clearing ditches of silt, ash and debris.

“We have given out about two-thirds of the money in $3,000 grants to individual acequias to kick-start repairs,” Garcia said. “It’s doing a world of good for people’s morale to get out there and do work.”

Griego said Las Tusas Community Ditch got one of those grants.

“It was a life saver,” he said. “We are going to be able to clear the ditch and repair damage to the headgate.”

Oatmeal river

But even if Griego’s irrigation ditch is dug free of silt and ash, cleared of debris and flowing come spring, he’s not sure that will be a good thing.

“The Sapello River feeds our acequia,” he said. “That canyon was wiped out. The fire was so hot, the earth is crunchy and the trees are just toothpicks. There is nothing to hold the water back. Our river was running like oatmeal. You could almost reach in and get a handful of it. When we do have another irrigation, are we going to have a high concentration of ash? If we do, it remains to be seen how that will affect the farmland.”

Griego said he has seen no trout, no crawdads, no bug life in the river, and he worries that his community will die out as well.

“You lose your acequia and you lose your way of life,” he said. “And the acequia is just one segment of the devastation. Logging is gone for generations. I’m not going to leave my community, but I don’t know what my neighbors are going to do.”

Garcia does not doubt the resilience and tenacity of the people who depend on acequias to irrigate their fields.

She said that on two Saturdays in October, volunteers turned out to clear fire and flood debris from acequias, one in Vallecitos and one at Morphy Lake.

“It was very rewarding to be out in the field,” she said. “One of the acequias was already flowing and we got the other one flowing.”

But what she dreads is the things they cannot control. Things such as climate change.

“The biggest problem facing acequias generally is drought, the lack of water,” she said. “Drought is different now from anything I have seen. Now, in the burn scar, the biggest problem is flooding. When there is not a forest there to hold the water in the mountains, that causes concern that our rivers will not flow as they used to. Will we get snowmelt as we once did? There is a lot of concern about the future of our water.

“I have ongoing concerns about continuing our way of life.”

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