Documentary looks at the history and impact of acequias on New Mexico and its people - Albuquerque Journal

Documentary looks at the history and impact of acequias on New Mexico and its people

The Rio Grande is a major source of water for New Mexico. The river and the acequias are the subject of a documentary set to air on New Mexico PBS. (Courtesy of Aracely Chapa)

In drought-stricken New Mexico, the importance of water is always at the forefront.

This is the impetus behind Aracely “Arcie” Chapa’s latest documentary, “Acequias: The Legacy Lives On.”

The documentary screened at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in late-January to a sold-out crowd. It has also been screened for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Carson National Forest employees last year during the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires.

“There’s been so much interest in the film,” Chapa says. “The subject matter is important. People are really wanting to see a film about acequias and treat it with historical context. That’s a real interest to people. Especially here in New Mexico. Acequias are a lifeline for many people.”

The documentary will get its New Mexico PBS premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 18, on channel 5.1. It will rebroadcast at 9 p.m. Friday, May 19, on WORLD channel 5.4.

Chapa teamed up with NMPBS to air the documentary to reach as many viewers as possible. Chapa says public events have helped get eyes on the film, but NMPBS broadcasts all over the state.

“I really wanted to offer it to New Mexico PBS,” Chapa says. “The first pass at the film was two hours long. I got it down to 56 minutes and 46 seconds so that it could be broadcast.”

Chapa says the documentary is about New Mexico’s enduring acequias as seen through the eyes of farmers, advocates, scholars, practitioners and members of the community.

Aracely Chapa

She wrote and directed the tribute to acequias’ past, present and future.

She says it was important the documentary was told through a series of storylines including the acequias’ current challenges, such as climate change and water rights transfers, their important role in the development of local food sheds, and the economic opportunity they provide for members of rural communities.

“In an arid state where every drop of water is studied and tracked, it has been shown that acequias provide recharge to our groundwater systems as water seeps into the earth beneath the flow,” Chapa says. “For over 400 years, acequias have been in continuous use and remain important to an understanding of New Mexico’s acequia heritage and the continuing relevance of these water democracies.”

Chapa worked on the film for 10 years.

She began the research in 2013, when she received funding from the state Legislature for a film on acequias.

She knew taking on the world of acequias would be a challenge because it had to be done right.

Acequias are gravity-fed irrigation ditches that were hand dug centuries ago and still exist today.

“When I first learned about them when I moved to New Mexico back in 1997, I was taken aback by their beauty and functionality,” Chapa says. “I honestly could not believe that this was a network of over 700 acequias in New Mexico. I got the idea right away that I wanted to do a film on them at some point. Their existence seemed to me like a storybook fairy tale, but when I learned about the challenges they were facing, the idea of doing a film on acequias left my head and traveled down to my heart. That’s when I knew I was committed, I knew I wanted to tell their story and tell it within a historical context.”

Chapa has taken the film to northern New Mexico with community screenings.

“Acequias: The Legacy Lives On,” is set to broadcast on New Mexico PBS on Thursday, May 18. The film shines a light on the importance of acequias in New Mexico. (Courtesy of Aracely Chapa)

“It’s been a project of blood, sweat and tears,” she says. “It’s important for people to learn about acequias because we need them around. They’ve been here for hundreds of years and need to be protected.”

Chapa touched on how the Rio Grande is a large irrigation ditch because it doesn’t flow freely, which is a concern for future growth of the state.

“The first edit included a section on Santolina, which they wanted to be built on the west side of Albuquerque,” she says. “I had to take it out because it was too complex. (Author) John Nichols says ‘Every plan is for Santa Fe and Albuquerque to grow. … but they are killing the golden goose that lays the golden egg.’ We don’t have enough water to sustain a massive growth.”

With the film airing on NMPBS, Chapa is hoping legislators can finally see it.

“There’s no funding for acequia infrastructure and they are the ones that can change it,” she says. “This film helps educate as well as fight for them.”

The NHCC is planning another screening on May 25.

Chapa says events are being planned for Las Cruces and other places in southern New Mexico.

“The film has already made an impact that there have been changes to hiring and practices from both FEMA and the Carson National Forest,” she says.

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