Water scarcity driven by the climate crisis could aggravate longstanding problems in running acequia systems. But a new generation of parciantes sees an opportunity for collective action.
About a year ago, in the dark of early morning, water from a rainstorm in Cuarteles spilled over the Santa Cruz Dam into the Santa Cruz River. It ran west to the Acequia Madre and then north to the Acequia de Santa Cruz, through head-gates and culverts, along a lateral ditch, and into the yard of Abel Valdez, who, at 3 a.m., watched his driveway fill with mud.
Someone had opened the two head-gates that control the water with which Valdez and his neighbors irrigate their lawns. Whoever it was had flooded the properties before, multiple times. The person often chose to open the gates when rain filled the Acequia de Santa Cruz with muddy water, so the storm Valdez saw on the news that night kept him awake. The 88-year-old shuffled out into the darkness, clutching the pipe wrench he would use to shut the nearest gate. Then he returned to his driveway, and he began shoveling muck.
The flooding continued into this summer. In August the head-gates were opened almost every other week, sometimes during the day, sometimes at night. The mayordomo of the Acequia de Santa Cruz, Michael Martinez, placed a lock on one, but somebody stole it. Abel and Michael have wondered whether Ross Lopez is the culprit.
Ross, a 90-year-old who lives on a nearby street, has referred to Abel as “the mayordomo crony.” He believes that Abel and Michael have been “harassing” him for four years, that they carelessly overfill the lateral ditch on Abel’s street and prevent Ross from watering his fields. Abel, he said, is “the one that’s responsible for the flooding.”
But this is less of a story about who is to blame and more of a question about how we will use our water.
• • •
“When the river ran, you could hear the hissing,” said Ross’s wife, Lydia, as she recalled downpours over the Santa Cruz River from her childhood. The sound scared her so much she did not sleep. The arroyos rose and “washed everything away,” and the river “covered all the land.”
Around that time, the Santa Cruz Irrigation District constructed the Santa Cruz Dam. In 1929, the year Lydia and Ross were born, men from around the Valley began building a 131-foot-tall wall of concrete between two hills in Chimayó.
They worked under the direction of the Anderson Brothers construction company, the only company that had been capable of completing the job—three others had gone bankrupt in the process of trying.
Ninety years and one restoration project later, the Santa Cruz Lake can hold roughly 3,570 acre-feet of water, about two-thirds of its full volume. A little less than a third is clogged with a century’s worth of silt. The Bureau of Land Management spent $1.8 million to dredge it in 2017, restoring just 5 percent of the reservoir’s capacity.
If the snowpack that fills New Mexico’s rivers were abundant enough for the water to flow high through the summer, the reservoir’s diminished capacity might not be a concern.
As it is, during drought years, the Santa Cruz Irrigation District must release water stored in the Lake. The less the reservoir can store, the less the District can release.
In the drought of 2018, which the National Drought Information System deemed “exceptional,” the driest a drought can be, the lake’s level sunk so low that those who depended on the water to irrigate watched their allotted irrigation time shrink from two days to one hour per week.
Some acequias farther north, fed by other watersheds, ran completely dry. Several elderly farmers said the drought was the worst they could remember, worse than the drought of the 1950s, when residents of Chimayó ran to the Santa Cruz Lake with buckets and scooped out the fish that were flopping around in puddles on the bottom.
Water will grow scarcer in the coming years. The World Resources Institute reported that New Mexico is the most water-stressed state in the United States, with water levels comparable to those of the United Arab Emirates, the tenth most water-stressed country in the world. Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have demonstrated that in a matter of decades, because of human-driven climate warming, the climate in the Southwest will likely match that of the 1950s drought or the 1930s Dust Bowl.
Years of ample water like this one do not contradict these findings—climate is the average of weather patterns over a long period of time, not year-to-year weather conditions.
The youngest farmers in Northern New Mexico have grown up watching the drying.
On the land of Corilia Ortega’s family in Arroyo Hondo, a flower garden grew, filled with lilacs and morning glories, cosmos and marigolds. In 1995, when Corilia was eight, her parents told her there was no longer enough water for the garden. It was that year, she said, that her community knew the climate was becoming warmer, “whether we called it climate change or not.”
Chavela Trujillo, who is now a young rancher on her family’s land in Abiquiú, used to fill buckets with water from the acequias and toss them on her friends while they jumped on the trampoline. The flow was so high that it carried fish into the fields when the Trujillos irrigated their land. Chavela ran through the flooded rows, gathering the fish to throw them back into the acequias. On Sunday afternoons she placed the family ducks in the ditches and caught them after they had floated downstream. “Now it’s like, ‘No, we gotta save our water,’” she said. “‘We can’t be wasting it.’”
For hundreds of years, during stretches of great water scarcity, people in the Americas have collectively managed water.
Pueblo people in what is now New Mexico dug community-governed irrigation canals to water their crops. Mexica people in what is now central Mexico maintained communal irrigation ditches called, in Nahuatl, “apantli.” When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they observed these irrigation practices and gave the ditches the Classical Arabic name that had described similar channels in Spain, dug after 700 AD: “acequia,” derived directly from the Arabic word “as-saqiya,” meaning “bearer of water.”
In a 1571 Nahuatl-to-Spanish dictionary, Alonso de Molina translated “apantli” to “acequia de agua.”
The Spanish used wooden shovels to dig channels that stretched miles throughout New Mexico. To govern the distribution of water, which they diverted from the rivers into the new ditches, they implemented the system we rely on today.
People whose properties an acequia irrigates are called parciantes. Parciantes possess the right to a certain amount of water, which flows onto their land from the acequia through a head-gate and sometimes a lateral ditch. The amount is determined by how much water is available from the watershed and how much water the other parciantes need.
It is traditionally measured in time allotments—someone’s garden may need six hours of water a week, while his neighbor’s field may need eight.
“Your right never exists within a vacuum,” said Paula Garcia, the executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. “Your rights exist within the community context, within the collective context.”
Each parciante votes to elect a mayordomo, the manager of the acequia. The mayordomo is responsible for distributing the water equitably, organizing maintenance of the ditch, and collecting assessments the parciantes pay each year for that maintenance. The parciantes also elect three commissioners: a treasurer, a secretary and a chair. Because of this system, an acequia is an autonomous community, in which parciantes, mayordomos and commissioners depend on each other.
As the amount of water dwindles to historically-unprecedented lows, parciantes will face a choice about how to distribute it within these communities.
Marcela Casaus, the Garden Programs manager of the Northern Youth Project, put the choice simply: “Is it gonna come down to ‘Mine and yours,’ or is it gonna come down to ‘Let’s work together here and help each other?’”
• • •
When asked how increased water scarcity will affect conflicts along the Acequia de Santa Cruz, Michael Martinez said, “Oh my god.” Then he closed his eyes and shook his head.
In early August, Ross Lopez accidentally trapped Abel Valdez and Abel’s neighbor Grace Chavez inside a fenced path that leads to the acequia. The two elderly people had walked down the path to shut off the flowing water that was once again flooding their street.
As Abel and Grace tried to exit the path, they found that the door in one of the fences that opens onto the path had been latched shut from the outside. Newly posted on the inside of the fence was a sign that read, “No Trespassing.”
Ross said he posted the sign to protect the path from vandals and did not realize that Abel and Grace were inside. He and his wife Lydia understand that the path is an easement belonging to their family. It was developed on someone’s private property as the result of a complicated lawsuit, for which the Lopezes spent about $70,000, with help from their grown children.
Lydia and Ross felt that the Chavezes, Abel and other neighbors who depend on the path to access the acequia should contribute to the payment. But Abel, they said, refused to pay.
“He didn’t give us one nickel,” Lydia said. “Not even one cent.”
So they believe he has no right to use the path. Considering how Abel should access the acequia, Lydia said, “He wants charity? Well, we’re not the wealthy department.”
Abel said that Lydia and Ross never told him about the litigation. Instead, he said, Ross locked the main head-gate and tried to charge Abel money to irrigate his lawn. Abel called the mayordomo, Michael Martinez, who cut the lock from the head-gate with a pair of bolt cutters and Abel by his side, apparently after giving Ross several warnings.
Ross, who had also locked the fence door to the easement, said he had only done so to prevent vandals from damaging the path or clogging the pipe, and that the neighbors could come get a key from him anytime they liked. He sued, unsuccessfully, to obtain a restraining order against Michael for cutting the lock.
Ross believes that Michael is failing in his mayordomo duties, not publishing a watering schedule, not fairly distributing water, not cleaning along the sides of the ditch.
In one place, a fence crosses the acequia, which is against the acequia bylaws.
Michael does not deny most of these claims. He said that it is impossible to fulfill the duties at this point. He knows about the fence across the ditch, about the weeds and prunings and garbage that cover the land running alongside the acequia, about the blocked pipes in another neighborhood that have prevented seven or eight parciantes from watering for several years.
“This is a fire waiting to happen,” he said, pointing to the forest of weeds and Russian olive trees that scraped against his truck as he drove to check the head-gates on the Acequia Madre. “This thing catches fire, you won’t stop it till Española.”
The problem is, with over 400 parciantes’ conflicting watering needs and sometimes no water, Michael does not think he can create a functional watering schedule. And the acequia does not have the money to fix the rest of the problems.
In 2018, more than 200 parciantes were delinquent in paying their assessments. Collecting these dues from the parciantes, Michael said, would require putting liens on their property—which would cost the acequia more money.
Ross’s anger over these matters has accumulated for more than a decade, and as he speaks about it, the words pour out fast. He talks about a time when there was enough water for his father’s 250 fruit trees. Parciantes would clean the ditch on horseback, and the path beside the acequia “was nice and clean, sandy.”
The only obstruction was a flower bed, sowed into the bank by a woman aptly named Mary Ann Seeds.
Ross became a commissioner for the Acequia de Santa Cruz when he was 16 and would remain one for the next 40 years. He walked through the foothills with the mayordomos, collecting brush for a diversion dam and rocks for a channel. He laid the stones, one by one, into the rushing water.
“This is destroying him, and I’m the one who pays for it,” Lydia has said more than once.
Michael said that Ross has threatened to shoot him more than once, which Ross denies.
Abel and Grace have become frightened of Ross, who, they say, has been dominating the acequia over the last fifty years. Ross is threatening another lawsuit.
Insults are hurled from all directions: “You’ve met him? I feel sorry for you,” and, “He’s the biggest bullshitter in the Valley,” and, “He’s a conman, to tell you the truth,” and, “I just know that he’s an underhanded man, but I can’t prove it.”
And meanwhile water is ending up all over the road as somebody creeps around with a pipe-wrench opening the head-gates.
In the midst of all this, it is easy to recall something Michael said: “Come on, share it with your neighbor. We’re not gonna live that long. How old are you? You’re 90 years old? Why are you still doing what you’re doing? Mr. Valdez is 89, Mr. Chavez is 88. So, what? Are the kids gonna continue doing this? Are their kids?”
• • •
Parciantes have always fought, and those closest to their acequia’s source have always left their head-gates open a little longer than they ought to during dry years. Jack Trujillo, a farmer in Abiquiú at the bottom of Acequia de la Puente, said that an old mealtime prayer is “perfect” for understanding water distribution on the acequias—”Jesus Christ, Holy Ghost, whoever eats the fastest gets the most!”
But there are also acequias that share water equitably during the most trying droughts.
On Acequia del Llano, in the midst of the 2018 drought, the last parciante on the ditch in a line of over 200 received enough water to grow corn and a full vegetable garden. Five acequias in Canjilon last summer arrived at a water sharing agreement after years of feuding. In the coming years they will allow the parciantes of the acequias farthest from Canjilon Creek, the source of their water, to irrigate their lands first.
“Before anyone irrigates twice, we should have at least everyone irrigate once,” said Norman Vigil, a parciante of two of those acequias.
Charlie Esquibel in Chimayó, every day that there is running water, drives up and down the Acequia de los Fresquez and the Acequia de Cuarteles to make sure the parciantes can irrigate. He is the mayordomo, and he has a reputation for setting an example of how to distribute water justly during times of drought. He knows all of the parciantes and their land.
When water is scarce, he makes sure that the gardens receive water first, as they need the most water and the people need the vegetables, and then the alfalfa fields, and then the orchards. He tells the parciantes to call him if they have any problems.
“We communicate and cooperate,” he said. “And those are the two things that, you know, you really, really need in order for the last person at the bottom gets his fair share of water and the guys on top don’t get more than their share of water.”
From a glance at a lawn he can tell whether the water is reaching the grass or whether neighbors upstream have been hogging it. He said it is the way the sun hits it.
He checks the melons that grow in his garden, as big as watermelons but as rough as cantaloupe, with deep lines running along the bodies like the imprints of slices. They grow out of seeds passed down from his grandfather.
Along State Road 76 he honks at parciantes and waves. Burs catch in his clothes when he stops to pull weeds from the ditches.
“You get your fair share of stickers, cuts, and dings,” he said. “Some people say, ‘I don’t know why you do it,’ some people say, ‘How do you do it,’ and sometimes I wonder myself. Sometimes I wonder myself.”
Then his phone rings—it is a parciante, wondering whether he can irrigate.
“Yeah,” he says, “there’s water today.”
• • •
Questions about the acequias’ fate spring not only from climate change. Charlie is 65 and wonders whether one of his sons will eventually become mayordomo. Jack said he is “hanging onto dear life from a thread.” A generation is dying and with it some of the commitment to the system.
These are the children of the ‘30s and ‘40s’ and ‘50s, whose families relied on the water for their entire livelihoods. Every year as a child Michael Martinez got one pair of shoes, which his family bought with the money they earned from the produce that grew because of the acequia’s water.
He was not allowed to cross his foot over his knee, as he would reveal the holes in the shoes’ soles that he patched with cardboard.
These are also the adults who began leaving their communities to find work in Los Alamos and Albuquerque, starting a wave of outmigration as the economy shifted from agriculture to wage labor.
Young adults are still leaving their families’ lands for education and jobs in the cities. When they leave behind the need for their crops, they often leave behind the acequias.
“Where are the young people?” asked Gloria Trujillo, a commissioner of the Acequia de los Espinosa. “Somebody needs to take over at some point in time. We don’t want to be here until we die, serving on the acequia commission.”
And yet young people are returning, opening horseback riding businesses, growing produce for farmers markets and students at schools around New Mexico. Together, they are countering the migration of youth out of the North.
Young farmers gathered on Aug. 23, at an acequia conference organized by the New Mexico Acequia Association. Before a crowd of mostly elderly people, they talked about their choice to return to their families’ lands.
“I believe that if our community does come together what can result is something really powerful, where we can not only feed ourselves but heal each other,” said Joseluis Ortiz, a 33-year-old farmer who has returned to the Embudo Valley from Albuquerque to grow produce on the land of his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. “I believe that it is possible. We have a very small window. And I think we’re in that window right now, before it’s gone.”
Joseluis left the Embudo Valley to escape violence, poverty and addiction, only to become homeless and addicted to pain medication in Albuquerque. Through environmental justice advocacy and farming, he has slowly found his way home.
“Our community health is shambles: diabetes, cancer, rare blood illnesses, mental health issues, anxiety, depression, drug addiction, violence, trauma,” he said. “I can just keep going down this list of things that are barriers that we face, that make us not want to even be interested in working the land. When I was young, I spent my childhood wanting to leave the Embudo Valley. And the moment I left, I’ve spent the last ten years trying to go back.”
These farmers, like their grandparents, depend on the acequias for their crops. They will have access to new federal funds for infrastructure support that their elders lacked—Senator Tom Udall this year secured a provision in the 2018 Farm Bill that will allow acequias to apply directly for federal funding.
Through the Youth Conservation Corps program at the East Rio Arriba Soil and Water Conservation District, they are also making use of mapping technology to find points of infrastructure failure along the acequias, so that parciantes can more easily keep track of what is happening along the entire ditch and apply for funding to fix the trouble spots.
And they are sharing their commitment to the land with other youth.
“The youth need peers that think it’s cool, too,” said Chavela Trujillo, who has opened a business called Extreme Abiquiú Horseback, offering riding lessons to children while taking classes at Northern New Mexico College. “It’s not, ‘This is what my grandpa’s doing and this is what is my dad’s doing.’ It’s like, no, ‘That’s what my friend’s doing. She thinks it’s cool, too.’”
Lupita Salazar, who returned to Cañones from Arizona and serves as the Arts & Leadership Programs manager at the Northern Youth Project, is teaching teenagers from the North about gardening.
“I want us to be able to create the community that we want, that will serve us, that will feed us,” she said. “That’s not just food—spiritually, emotionally. I want the youth to be able to do that.”
When the kids arrive at the garden, Lupita tells them to look at their veins.
“I’m like, okay you see those blue things in there? Those are the veins, right, those are the veins of your body. And the acequias are the veins of our community. Without them we couldn’t have survived here.”