By Quita Ortiz
Pedro Nolasco Romero’s roots are embedded deep within his homeland of Nambé, New Mexico where he grew up on the Acequia del Caño and served as the Mayordomo for over 30 years. He invited me over to tell me about an acequia and river restoration project that he spearheaded in response to an effort that inadvertently left the acequia virtually inoperable. The point of Pedro’s story isn’t to name names or point the finger. He holds his acequia in high regard and he just wanted the opportunity to educate others about the community process that took place to restore the acequia; and through his story, reaffirm the traditional knowledge that’s engulfed by those who grew up living, breathing, and coveting their acequia traditions.
About 8 years ago, after Pedro resigned as mayordomo, the incoming acequia commissioners took on a well-intentioned project to repair the Acequia del Caño to improve its water delivery, but instead resulted in damaging the water diversion efficiency. Rather than cleaning around the intake of the acequia by removing sand and debris from that area, they dug into the river, building a berm around the acequia with hopes to force the water into the acequia. “If you clean the acequia, the water naturally runs downhill from the river, it’s very simple,” said Pedro. He emphasized the need to take care of the acequia, “It doesn’t matter how much water there is. You can have a river full of water, but if you don’t have a good means of conveyance then the water is useless to you because you can’t deliver it to your fields.” Pedro made it clear that he, in no way, is bringing this story to light with the purpose of criticizing those who took on this effort. In fact, he appreciates the concern and attempt, but unfortunately he had to spend years trying to convince commissioners that the approach they took was far more detrimental than it was useful.
Pedro showed me a short video that he produced, illustrating the detriment caused by the commission’s infrastructure improvement attempts. The video was viewed by his fellow parciantes at their acequia meeting, finally earning the support Pedro needed to revise the approach to improving the acequia infrastructure. “We shouldn’t have to force this education on folks, we should groom people as we go along so we’re confident that the next generation will know what needs to be done when they take over,” he said. He then mentioned the way his ancestors constructed the acequia when they first settled the area, letting the river’s gravity dictate where the acequia would run its course. “They didn’t have transits or lasers — the water was their transit,” he said.
We soon made our way to the restoration site near the diversion of the Acequia del Caño, where Pedro showed me firsthand the work that went into restoring the acequia and river. To complete the project, Acequia del Caño commissioners needed equipment and materials. They acquired jersey barriers that were left over from a nearby road construction project after writing a letter of request to the Department of Transportation. Pedro used his own knowledge about the river’s course to develop the construction plan. He had three terraces of the barriers installed in an arc-shape in the river near the acequia intake, and then poured concrete on the banks to secure the barriers. Shortly after the installation, monsoon rains induced a 50-year flood, which was actually a blessing to the project – the rushing water deposited material between and around the barriers, nearly burying the first terrace. "It's like nature helping you do things because you do them to fit nature," Pedro said referring to the material that was deposited by the flood episode, further reinforcing the structure.
Pedro is also spreading native flower and grass seed along the banks of the Río Nambé to help restore the vegetation that was destroyed during previous efforts. Future plans include increasing the height on the sides of the structure to prevent damage to the river banks during future flood events, and wrapping the barriers with metal mesh to protect them from damage caused by moving rocks.
Despite Pedro’s resignation as mayordomo several years ago, he’s still very active in its leadership, “I do what I do to keep my culture and heritage alive. For me, it’s a way of life, a state of mind,” he says. Although there is still work to be done, this restoration effort has come a long way. Pedro spearheaded the project, but in the end it was about the community pulling together local resources and working together to get the job done.