Acequia Realities of Water Scarcity in New Mexico

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L1070795Acequia Realities of Water Scarcity in New Mexico

Serafina Lombardi and Quita Ortiz

Acequia communities across the state are dealing with shortened irrigation seasons and reduced flows; subsequently, parciantes have reduced herds, planted less, and in some cases have even witnessed their pasture grasses die from heat and lack of water (see the table on our website, "Acequia Irrigation 2013 Trends"). The table is not a comprehensive survey of all acequia communities throughout the state, but it still provides a good snapshot of what's taking place on the ground.  

While nearly all acequias are challenged by water scarcity, the degree to which they are affected demonstrates the incredible diversity of water sources that our acequias depend on. To compare two extremes, consider the acequias in the Cuba area which depend on resumederos, or the collection of water high up in the mountains, to feed their acequias. This intermittent source of water is not the most dependable. As a result, many acequias in Cuba had a significantly shortened irrigation season this year; or in some cases no water at all. On the flip side, the acequias of Santa Rosa, which are fed off of the Ogallala Aquifer, have seen no reduction in water access from the acequia.

In another post, "Parciante Perspectives on the 2013 Irrigation Season," we looked at a number of anecdotes from parciantes in different regions to gain a better understanding of what they're dealing with in terms of drought; and how they're coping. Additionally, we heard from a number of mayordomos who, at NMAA's Tradition and Adaptation statewide workshop in June, gave us a glimpse of the challenges they faced this year and how they addressed water sharing in the face of extreme shortage (see our "Mayordomo & Community Response to Drought" article.

Considering all these anecdotes from parciantes, commissioners, and mayordomos, we're seeing a pretty clear picture of the hardships experienced by communities throughout New Mexico. Acequias certainly aren't the only ones in the state feeling the effects of drought. Those in southern New Mexico are also dealing with thirsty farms. The Elephant Butte Irrigation District has had the shortest irrigation season in its history. At just 7 percent capacity, irrigators dependent on water from Elephant Butte reservoir received only one month of water releases this year; usually it's anywhere from 5 to 8 months. All of the state's reservoirs are far below average levels, and some of them hardly have any water at all – like El Vado reservoir in Rio Arriba County, which is only at 5 percent capacity.  

One thing that most reservoirs and acequias across the state can agree on are: thank goodness for the monsoon rains. But it's merely a drop in the bucket considering that, although the summer rains have kept our gardens and pastures afloat, winter snowpack is the key contributor in replenishing our rivers, lakes, and aquifers which support long term water supplies.

Declining annual snowfall coupled with milder winter temperatures and an ever-increasing population is a recipe for long-term adverse water shortages. Soaring summer temperatures are also part of the equation. We're witnessing our plants as they cope with stress resulting from extreme heat. Even our native and landrace varieties are experiencing the hardship presented by temperatures that are well above normal, leading to lower yields and an increased proneness to disease and pest

We don't know what's in store for our future when it comes to the water supply, but it's safe to assume that becoming accustomed to sharing very little water will be necessary. As we inch toward the future of water in New Mexico, it's evident that we'll face hard decisions – acequias must continue to claim their seat at the table at the state level as well as work together at the community level to keep the water flowing equitably for everyone.