Rio Pecos Agricultural & Water Rights Workshop

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Paula Garcia, NMAA Executive Director facilitating the Rio Pecos Agricultural & Water rights workshop-Photo taken by Olivia NMAA Staff

By Olivia Romo, NMAA Staff

On December 8th 2016 the NM Acequia Association in partnership with American Friends Service Committee, and the Cow Creek Basin Regional Acequia Association, hosted an agricultural and water rights workshop in Pecos, NM. The intent of the workshop was to empower and educate the water users of the Pecos River about the current water challenges that face acequieros and farmers of this magnificent basin. From manyangles, the Pecos River is under development or debate from the current proposal of the expansion of the wilderness, water being transferred off of agricultural land, and the re-adjudication of Cow Creek, a tributary of the Pecos River. All environmental resources are being encroached upon and are at risk; mobilizing farmers to organize in order to protect their rights to the land and water of this region.

It was a cold night in Pecos yet over 50 acequieros huddled at the Sherrifs Possee to eat a warm meal prepared by Sofia Valencia and discuss water concerns of the area. Paula Garcia, Executive Director of NMAA gave a welcome and introduction to the services that NMAA provides. An extended welcome was given by Ralph Vigil, Pecos local and President of the NM Acequia Commission who proudly recognized the leadership of acequias present. The workshop began with Enrique Romero, attorney for NM Legal Aid and Legal Counsel for the Cow Creek Basin Acequia Association defining the elements of a water right and how farmers can better protect their legal rights as water users. In a state that is use it or lose it in terms of water rights, Enrique argued in short that the best way to protect your water is to irrigate through your acequias. Water must be put to beneficial use, even in times of shortage. While water banking is a legal mechanism for protecting water rights on fallow land – water rights in a water bank are considered "in use" while placed in the bank – many acequias still require members to take some action to deposit those water rights in the bank. In addition, water banking is only a temporary measure; even water banked water rights are subject to loss if enough time passes and water is not beneficially applied to the land with those water rights. Therefore, when adjudication, or "re-adjudication", occurs, parciantes should be prepared to demonstrate continuous beneficial use on their irrigable land, the best proof being actual agricultural activity.
Enrique Romero attorney for N.M. Legal Aid presents methods in protecting water rights-Photo taken by Olivia Romo, NMAA Staff
Following Enrique's presentation, Richard Valencia, President of the Cow Creek Basin Acequia Association, a regional association of acequias comprised of a majority of acequias in Cow Creek and Bull Creek, testified that "the adjudication caught us by surprise as many of us were struggling to repair our ditches and irrigate after multiple environmental disasters". Cow Creek was adjudicated in the 1933 Hope Decree a legally fixed amount of water rights to the recognized surface water users of the Upper Pecos Valley whose acequias are still functioning and delivering water to their parciantes and descendants.However, as we moved from an agrarian economy to a cash-based one, people left Pecos to work in Santa Fe or Las Vegas postponing, sometimes indefinitely, an agricultural way of life. Many parciantes work full time jobs and in the irrigation season still work the land every chance they get.

Richard Valencia, President of the Cow Creek Basin Acequia Association informs other acequias about adjudication on how to do post-adjudication organizing-Photo taken by Olivia Romo, NMAA Staff

Due to state law requiring continuous beneficial use of water in order for water rights to remain valid, many of the farmers in Cow Creek have restored their land, repaired infrastructure, and have reached out to absent landowners who have moved away to come back home and tend to their land. Struggling with issues of infrastructure, drought, devastating forest fires, and illegal stock ponds having been built and later breached , the acequia leaders in Cow Creek have brought land back into production. They have restored their acequia's infrastructure, improved governance, , and encouraged land owners to get involved in the adjudication and restore their parcels of land. The re-adjudication of Cow Creek is in its beginning stages; water right offers will likely go out in the spring of 2017 and Cow Creek parciantes need to be vigilant. The State Engineer's hydrographic survey is only recognizing about ¼ of the irrigated acres recognized in the Hope Decree which adjudicated these rights. Acequieros in Cow Creek have their work cut out for them during the next stages of this adjudication. Parciantes in the upper reaches of the Pecos River should heed the lessons learned from this particular adjudication and both reengage in their respective acequia's governance and work to get fallow land into production.

Patrick Jaramillo of the American Friends Service Committee, spoke on behalf of the work they have been doing in Pecos through their farmer training program that was started by Don Bustos, board member of the NMAA. AFSC brought many skills to Pecos and helped many farmers raise hoop houses and restore pieces of land that otherwise would have been impossible to farm without skilled labor or heavy machinery. Patrick emphasized the importance of keeping the land in production and protecting the water because, "When the state wants to take away water, they are taking away life". Last but not least, Tom Dominquez, Agricultural Extension Agent of Santa Fe County was happy to offer his services including season extension to the farmers in Pecos, enabling them to use the acequia system to grow organic food throughout the winter and learn about the opportunities to market their produce. County Extension offers trainings on various topics including food preservation and how to test your soil to gain information on how to improve your soil for production.
Commissioners of the West Pecos Ditch attentive to the water issues being discussed by Enrique Romero, N.M. Legal Aid- Photo taken by Olivia Romo, NMAA Staff
The NMAA encouraged participants to pursue USDA programs through the NRCS and FSA for on farm improvements. NMAA offers technical assistance in getting fallow land back into use and supporting existing operations in taking full advantage of federal programs. Additionally, we offer assistance to Commissions in funding acequia repairs. Please contact NMAA Staff Serafina Lombardi at (505) 995-9644 or for more information.
We were also honored to have County Commissioner Elect Janice Varela, former NMAA staff, to present on the West Pecos Ditch water transfer. Janice engaged the community in a dialogue and action plan for protesting the transfer now that it will be re-published and the short window to protest the application is re-opened. Janice also discussed how to prepare our acequias for managing future water transfer applications.
Janice Varela, Couny Commissioner Elect discussing the threats of the West Pecos Ditch water transfer to a wealthy oil man-Photo take by Olivia NMAA Staff
Thank you to all our partners and participants for caring about the water rights of the Pecos. May the organizing continue and if you need any assistance in filing a protest to the West Pecos Ditch transfer, learning more about agricultural land restoration, or protecting water rights, please call NMAA at (505) 995-9644.