Drought, Water Scarcity, and Food Production: Acequia Strategies for Adaptation

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By Paula Garcia

When State Engineer Scott Verhines presented at the 2012 Congreso de las Acequias, he noted that the past two years were the warmest and driest on record. Acequia irrigators from throughout the state of New Mexico could bear witness to his graphs and data. Parciantes around New Mexico are reporting very little rain or snow, extremely low stream flows, and overall water shortages. Some can say from experience that this is like the drought of the 1930’s or the 1950’s, but for many this is the worst drought they’ve experienced in their lifetimes.

On one hand, native New Mexicans, including the Pueblo and later mixed blood settlers, have many generations of experience with drought. Time-honored traditions of sharing scarce water are deeply woven into the social fabric of our communities. On the other hand, the demands for water in the 21st century are unprecedented. Unlike the past few centuries when water sharing customs evolved in acequia communities, water is now under great pressure to meet growing demands related to population growth and a changing economy.

Acequias can draw upon generations of local knowledge about water sharing in their respective stream systems. Much of this knowledge is still relevant including an understanding of the hydrology of the ditch, the methods for allocating water through tiempos, and the characteristics of the different terrenos served by the ditch. However, acequias will be challenged to adapt to new conditions or a new normal in climate generally. Shorter winters and warmer springs mean an earlier runoff cycle so some acequias are adapting by beginning the irrigation season earlier. Lower pressure head from reduced stream flows is causing some acequias to install new headgates, ditch lining, or piping. Lower supplies are pushing acequias to remember old customs and reinvent methods and understandings to adapt to the ongoing drought conditions. Some of the measures acequias are already taking to survive drought include the following:

  • Reaffirming, learning, and remembering water sharing customs from elders in the community. Water sharing customs are practiced to varying degrees and some acequias are actively seeking out this knowledge and taking steps to document it so that it can be a part of the ongoing operation of the acequia.
  • Revisiting old customs of water sharing and assessing what works and what can be improved based on the long-term drought we are experiencing. Meetings among parciantes to come to an understanding old and new customary practices are beginning to take place more often.

A related issue for water management in drought is the strategies acequias use to accommodate changing agricultural needs. In the next few years, acequias will likely continue to consider the various ways of food production that may need adjustments to traditional or customary rotation schedules. Growing numbers of irrigators are using season extension methods to grow food year-round. And, some producers are experimenting with mini-ponds combined with drip irrigation to have greater control over the availability and timing of water for irrigation. As more irrigators transition to a variety of crops over more traditional methods, the acequias will over time adjust to provide water for expanded local food production.

In addition to adapting to drought in day to day operations, acequias are dealing with an accelerating water market with many entities actively, even aggressively, seeking to purchase and transfer acequia-based water rights. Various water right settlements include provisions for non-acequia entities to purchase acequia-based water rights in what will become a dramatic shift in water ownership away from acequias. Included in the terms of those settlements are requirements that the acequias cannot oppose or protest such transfers. Cities are making water rights acquisition a routine part of their annual budgets and are actively building “portfolios” of water right assets. Some local governments or corporations are proposing vast pipelines from rural areas to urban areas to supply water to make up for the loss of groundwater that has been depleted from decades of pumping. Acequias are adapting in various ways:

  • Hundreds of acequias in New Mexico have updated their bylaws to reflect the 2003 changes to the law authorizing them to regulate water transfers out of their systems. This is not an absolute protection but it gives acequias the legal tools to prevent transfers that are detrimental to the acequia or its members. NMAA provides detailed technical assistance on its adoption and implementation, but an ongoing issue relates to the resources needed when acequia decisions on water transfers are legally challenged. While many remain, the widespread adoption of the water transfer bylaw by so many acequias is an indication that acequias are bracing themselves for major decisions about water and possibly for conflicts over water allocation in their respective communities.
  • Beyond water transfers of acequia-based water rights, acequias are also concerned with the broader trends in water transfers, groundwater pumping, or both. In several places around New Mexico, pipelines are in the planning or construction stages to move water over large geographic distances, in most cases to meet demands where water has been depleted or where future demands outstrip current supply. Many such projects propose to pump groundwater and move it from a rural area to a populated area of the state. The largest example of this is the San Augustine Plains water transfer application. Considering that this specific transfer has drawn such a high number of protestants, including acequias in that region of the state, there is a growing awareness about the value of our aquifers to the long term sustainability of rural areas of the state.

As demands for water increase, acequias and allies who support local food production are beginning to coalesce around the common concern of protecting water rights for local food production while also supporting strategic investments in our local food systems to make small scale agriculture more economically viable. All of this optimistic work is happening against a backdrop of great uncertainty about the future water supplies.

While acequias have much work to do in adapting their day to day and seasonal operations to adapt to drought while also accommodating the demand for local food, much work remains to build the political mobilization that will be required to protect the water, both agricultural water rights and the aquifers and rivers that support our acequias. Political mobilization can come in the form of protests to the mega-water transfers and also of the piecemeal water transfers that threaten to unravel our agricultural treasures.

Political mobilization can also come in pressure on entities seeking to acquire water rights to minimize demand through water conservation and strategies to meet their water needs in a manner that minimizes the negative impacts to agriculture and local food systems. Elected officials need to be reminded that the decline of agriculture is not inevitable. The protection of agriculture will require focused efforts of the acequias but also strong collaborations with allies who care about local food systems and healthy, locally grown food. As the drought continues or even intensifies, the pressures on agriculture will accumulate and a broad base of support will be needed to emphasize its continued importance for our culture and economy.

Some upcoming events serve to contribute to this broader dialogue and potential collective mobilization. These include the Agricultura Aqui y Alla event in Rio Arriba County on February 22 and 23 and the Producers Forum at the Taos Food Center on April 6. Join us for these events that honor our farming and ranching traditions while also giving inspiration with tours and presentations on success stories.