Prior to the creation of the MRGCD, acequias and community ditches were the primary form of irrigation in the Middle Rio Grande. Historic acequias were part of the establishment of the land grants during the Spanish and Mexican colonial eras and endured into the tenure of the United States and eventually New Mexico statehood. Unlike most acequias in the state, the historic acequias of the Middle Rio Grande were absorbed into a conservancy district in the early 20th century. The MRGCD was created to mitigate flooding with a vast network of canals and also to improve the delivery of water for irrigation on newly opened lands and historically irrigated lands. The historically irrigated lands that have water rights that pre-date the district are generally considered pre-1907 water rights, a special distinction in New Mexico water law in which such water rights are vested by the State Constitution.
The extent of autonomy of acequias within MRGCD has been the subject of litigation for decades since the creation of the MRGCD in the 1920s. The original plan for MRGCD included major canals and irrigation ditches but there are areas within MRGCD that are served by secondary laterals that were not on the original plan and are not maintained by the MRGCD to this day. However, many of these lands not served by MRGCD have pre-1907 water rights. Because of development pressures, landowners have faced challenges in retaining their access to historic easements and getting reliable water distribution.
The extent of autonomy of the laterals serving pre-1907 water rights with regard to water distribution has been the subject of litigation for several decades. In, MRGCD v. Alameda (1934), a district court decision held that water distribution would be handled by a Mayordomo acceptable to the acequia and the District. In MRGCD v. Chavez (1940), the NM Supreme Court held that the formation of MRGCD created a “superior authority” for the control of water distribution rather than the Los Chavez Acequia located within MRGCD. The Chavez decision also said that the duties of commissions over the Los Chavez Acequia remained in question and that determination was not necessary to a decision in that case. The Chavez decision further created ambiguity in saying that lateral ditches not on the official plan of the MRGCD were in the “ownership and control… of the land owners.”
In recent years, several acequias have reorganized themselves around laterals in the MRGCD in an effort to strengthen water distribution and improve water availability for irrigation. They have organized themselves as acequias in accordance with the acequia laws of New Mexico, Chapter 72, Articles 2 and 3 (NMSA 1978). In the last few years, acequias within MRGCD have received capital outlay funds from the State Legislature but the Interstate Stream Commission has not entered into contracts to spend the funds because of questions about the status of the historic acequias within MRGCD. At Attorney General opinion was requested by the Interstate Stream Commission in August of 2008 to clarify the legal status of acequias. The AG has requested additional documentation before rendering any opinion. The matter remains unresolved.
The seven acequias in the South Valley organized themselves into the South Valley Regional Association of Acequias. That organization is seeking a legislative solution to the ambiguity over the status of acequias in relation to their role in water distribution. They are specifically seeking to have some management authority over water distribution on the laterals that are not maintained or operated by MRGCD.
In a recent resolution, the New Mexico Acequia Association, requested that the MRGCD work collaboratively with acequias for the purpose of improving water distribution on historic laterals and clarifying the roles and responsibilities of local acequias in relation to the MRGCD. As an additional measure for clarity, the New Mexico Acequia Association supported the position of the South Valley Acequia Association in requesting that that the New Mexico State Legislature consider legislation that would clarify the status and role of the historic acequias within MRGCD for the purpose of ensuring the continuation of irrigated agriculture in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. One proposal is that such legislation prescribe that acequias have the right to distribute water to its members from the headgate to the farms after the MRGCD has delivered water to the headgates but that acequias may enter into agreements with MRGCD for operation and maintenance of ditches,