Acequias Diligent in Defense of Water Rights

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By Paula Garcia

For the last four hundred years, the struggle to protect and sustain acequias has required the contributions of many community members, from the peones who clean the acequia each spring to the comisionados and mayordomos who govern and care for the acequia. The guiding principles that have sustained acequias for generations are rooted in values of fairness, equity, sharing, and respect. More recently, in the past thirty to forty years, acequia community leaders have kept traditions alive and tended to their duties, but they have also had to take on new re-sponsibilities. In addition to traditional roles in managing the acequia through local customs, acequia leaders had to adapt and learn the fundamentals of New Mexico water law – the survival of their water rights and acequias depended on it. The struggle took many forms. For some, it was to defend acequias in the adjudication process. For others, it was fighting to change state laws with regard to water trans-fers and other potential threats.

In a recent article, Kay Matthews, writer and publisher for La Jicarita News, was critical of some of these efforts suggesting that acequia leaders had become compromised because they were defending water rights as private property rights. The NMAA recently celebrated its 20th anniversary that was marked with an affirmation of core values, especially the principle that water is life and that treating water as a commodity threatens the survival of acequias and the potential for locally grown food. While we remain firm in this principle, we are also confronted with the sometimes harsh realities of state law in which the right to use water is considered a property right.

Our approach has been to strengthen our cultural view of water as a community resource so that in our hearts and minds, the acequia parciantes have such a strong attachment and querencia for their acequia that they are unlikely to want to sever their water rights from the land and sell them. We also work to strengthen agriculture, and parciantes seek to keep water rights attached to farmland. But we have also sought to change state law so that the acequias have the decision-making power over transfers thereby regaining some measure of local self determination about our future. To date, we have worked with over 300 acequias on strategies to protect their water rights from the increasing pres-sures to transfer them out of acequias. A relatively small part of this campaign was the policy change; the larger part has been an unprecedented outreach and organizing effort to work directly with acequias. Through this work, we retained our core values but we strategi-cally found ways to resist water transfer threats within the framework of New Mexico water law. This is only one strategy and the future of acequias rests on our ability to continually adapt and collec-tively develop more strategies as we move forward. It is essential to remain hopeful about this ongoing work.

Matthews was also critical of the community leaders engaged in the Abeyta (Taos) and the Aamodt (Nambe-Pojoaque-Tesuque) water right settlements because of their defense of "private property rights." It is important to keep in mind that they had to play by the rules of the adjudica-tion and the framework of the legal system. In de-fending water rights, the leaders were diligent in using the tools available to them. Acequias general-ly do not enter the adjudication process by choice, rather it is an imposition that is structured by state law and the acequias have to respond collectively in their self-defense. Adjudication by its nature is dif-ficult and can be divisive and polarizing. Adjudica-tion can highlight conflicts and create new conflicts that were not there before it started. For those of us who have never been through this process, it is dif-ficult to imagine the complexity.

The work of adjudication defense is the pur-view of regional acequia associations who are the direct stakeholders. When faced with the challeng-es of the adjudication process, local community leaders had to dedicate themselves to countless hours of negotiation, and those hours became years, and those years became decades. While a critical analysis of the settlements is justi-fiable, it is important to keep in mind that it took years of careful negotiation to reach agreement with Pueblos and other govern-mental entities. These leaders had to make difficult decisions and compromises. These decisions and compromises may be the subject of debate for years to come. However, the commit-ment and dedication to the process of reaching the-se settlements has to be acknowledged.

As a statewide membership organization, the NMAA is in no way involved with adjudication. Our work is focused on education and advocacy. In an announcement when the settlements were reached and were in the process of seeking congres-sional authorization, the NMAA commended the efforts of these leaders for their tireless work in de-fense of their acequias. It was merely an announce-ment and not intended to be a thorough analysis of the content of the settlements. There may be much to discuss among a wider group of leadership about the implications of the settlements, but NMAA maintains that such analysis should not diminish the contributions of the local leaders who gave years of their lives and made difficult decisions on behalf of their communities in the hope that their acequias would endure for generations to come.