NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Talk to any New Mexico farmer near the Rio Grande and they’ll tell you how important their acequia is. While they may look like nothing more than dirt ditches, every acequia in New Mexico is tied to a rich history and agricultural tradition — one that’s now being threatened.
Water is essential to life in New Mexico. And for many, it’s essential to their way of life as well.
Surface water supports more than 200,000 acres of crops, farmlands, and irrigated fields across New Mexico, according to data from the Office of the State Engineer. Everyone from small family farms to industrial growers rely on water diverted from New Mexico’s streams and rivers.
To access the life-giving water, New Mexicans have relied on acequias for centuries. As early as 1598, Spanish settlers and conquistadores were digging ditches to bring water to exactly where it was needed. Some Native Americans, of course, also relied on irrigation — the Hohokam people of Arizona relied on diversions and canals, according to researchers — but the acequia as we know it today is a product of European settlers. And the acequia is now a symbol for New Mexico water management.
“To survive in this landscape, there has to be cooperation. There has to be a culture of sharing water, and that’s what acequias have done for centuries in New Mexico,” says Paula Garcia, the executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association.
An unexpected problem: too much water too quickly
A constant concern for water-dependent farmers is that there won’t be enough water to irrigate. And with increasing likelihood for droughts in New Mexico, a lack of water is often on everyone’s mind. But recently, acequias have faced the opposite issue: too much water all at once.
“Floods and debris flows are having tremendous impacts,” Garcia told KRQE News 13. Acequias are “small and vulnerable in the scale of the landscape. And so, you know, one flood can wipe out an acequia.”
“It’ll break the ditch banks. It’ll cover the entire ditch with sediment, ash debris, and it makes them inoperable,” she says. Then, “the water will simply not flow.”
So what’s behind these debris-filled floods? Wildfire.
“The main thing that we’re concerned about now is that the fires have burned in the upper watersheds. And those are the source of our waters. The acequia waters originate in those watersheds,” Garcia explains. Fire, of course, damages those watersheds and changes the way water flows throughout the region.
As trees, shrubs, and other plants are burned on sloping land, there are fewer and fewer obstacles for flowing water to collide with. So if monsoon rains fall on a burn scar, the risk for flooding can rise.
And fires change the soil composition. Normally, soils can absorb rainwater, but ash from fires can create a waterproof layer on top of the ground.
“After wildfires, there’s often hydrophobic soil. Even with a low intensity burn, there can still be some hydrophobic soil which then just helps the water run off,” says Shawn Penman, a geographic information system (GIS) specialist at the University of New Mexico (UNM). So, “when you have slopes, just because of the nature of the hydrophobic soils, you will have flooding afterwards.”
These floods can — and often do — cause a lot of damage. Recently, following the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak Fire, residents in Northern New Mexico have seen floods tear through their community. In addition to damaging homes and stirring controversy over flood control, the floodwater has destroyed acequias.
“As soon as the fire cooled off enough for us to be safe in the field, we started doing GIS maps, and there’s about 80 acequias in the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon [burn] scar,” Garcia from the Acequia Association says. “We’ve mapped about 50 of them.”
The hope is that by mapping the damaged acequias with software and photos, the communities that own the acequias can get reimbursed for the damages. Right now, some of them are applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relief funds. But so far, securing funding has been a challenge.
“We’re struggling with how to pay for all these damages. And there hasn’t been any state or federal help yet to fix these damages,” Garcia says. “It’s encouraging that the President announced help for people who are impacted by the fire, but the way that the federal programs are set up, they’re mainly geared toward individuals and are mainly geared towards homes.”
“We have our first test case working its way through the system,” she says. “It took a while to work out kinks because there were individuals along the way in the agency who didn’t know what an acequia was. We had to explain it. And as soon as we explained it and provided documentation, we were able to clear the hurdles.”
“It hasn’t come to fruition yet,” she adds. “We haven’t gotten help yet, in dollars, but I feel like we’re making some modest progress.”
One flooded, sediment-filled acequia in northern New Mexico could cost around $250,000 to clean out, Garcia says. That’s for a relatively long acequia, one that’s multiple miles. But even shorter acequias are expensive to repair, she adds.
“It’s not possible for acequias to pay any of that upfront,” Garcia says. “Most acequias have a bank account with a few hundred or at most, a few thousand dollars.”
Still, the community needs the acequia. The goal for that sediment-filled, multi-mile acequia is to get it operational by next spring, which would allow it to bring spring snowmelt to crops. But, research shows that climate change in New Mexico is causing spring melts to happen earlier than before, meaning the window for repairing the acequia could be shorter next year.
“They’re gonna want to have it operational, really by the fall so that they can capture those early spring runoffs,” Garcia says. The flooding has “really turned our world upside down.”
Miles and miles of acequias potentially at-risk in the future
Recent wildfires have revealed a key issue that an increasing number of New Mexico’s historic acequias may face in the near future. After all, the scientific consensus is that New Mexico’s climate is changing, and that means more fires in some areas.
And more fires means more flooding. “In my experience in the Western United States, following every wildfire there’s flooding,” says Shawn Penman from UNM.
“There are at least 125 miles of acequias within the perimeter of the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon,” Penman says. And that’s just within that one area.
Across New Mexico, there are hundreds of acequias connected to thousands of individuals and fields. The Acequia Association has counted many of them.
“We’ve inventoried close to 700 acequias,” Garcia says. “And those acequias, they vary widely in size. They might be [connected to] as few as five families and as many as 500 families.”
Clearly more than just a handful of ditches, New Mexico’s acequias are inevitably tied to the lives of thousands of New Mexicans. And wildfire-related flooding is just one challenge these acequia communities are facing.
At the other end of the spectrum: drought
While some acequias are at risk of damage from floods, others are drying out. And experts expect climate change to make that worse.
In recent years, national news outlets like the New York Times have questioned whether New Mexico’s acequias will survive drought. Garcia from the Acequia Association says that drought means less reliable flows in acequias, and that’s tough on farmers.
“This is a very difficult time for us,” Garcia says. “Even though acequias have endured for centuries, and have lived through droughts before, the kind of weather extremes that are happening now are putting a lot of strain and stress on our communities.”
From wildfire, to flood, to drought, it’s all adding up.
“Words can’t even describe the sense of urgency that’s being felt — all the damage that’s being done on such a wide landscape and to such an extent,” Garcia says. “I would say that we are in a crisis.”