Acequia Community Spotlight: Acequia del Alto al Norte’s New Diversion Dam

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By Paula Garcia

It took years of planning and persistence to complete a new presa (diversion dam) for Acequia del Alto al Norte in the Mora Valley. After working for nearly two decades with acequias around New Mexico, I finally had the experience of working to complete a project on my own acequia with our Commissioners, Mayordomo, and parciantes. Here is our story.

We opened the new presa in December 2016, and final work was completed in early 2017, just in time for the Spring runoff. The new presa replaces a very old rock and log structure, where the new infrastructure will allow our acequia to better divert water from the Mora River into our acequia madre and the various laterals that feed our fields and gardens. When I saw water flow through the acequia this Spring, my heart swelled with gratitude for water that flows from the sierra through our humble stream, the Mora River, that bisects green fields nurtured by the acequias. Beyond being thankful for the water, I was deeply thankful for the generations past who kept these acequias flowing and for my neighbors worked together to make this project possible so that the acequia can continue to flow for many years in the future.

Acequia del Alto al Norte is likely one of the older acequias in the Mora Valley. Just upstream, there are acequias around the villages of Cleveland (formerly San Antonio), Encinal, and Cañoncito, who may pre-date Mora, but this acequia, along with its companion on the south side, Acequia del Medio del Sur, are undoubtedly very old, likely dating to the early 1800s. For generations, the families of these lands had to work together to build and maintain the acequia madre and laterals, of which there are three on our acequia. Altogether, it is estimated that this acequia provides water for over 400 acres and more than two dozen families who raise livestock and grow pastures and gardens. It is also home to Victory Ranch, well-known for the alpaca herd that is popular for tourists who visit the valley.

The diversion dam started several years ago when our Mayordomo, Peter Velasquez, asked for assistance from the local NRCS office. The project was on a waiting list for some time until an engineer at NRCS, Hope Tran, was able to dedicate time to working on the design. Around the time the design was underway, the acequia requested Capital Outlay and was appropriated $50,000. However, during the economic crisis of 2008-2009, it was one of many projects swept (unfunded) by the state legislature.

Undeterred, the acequia pressed on and worked with NRCS to complete the design. Our local NRCS supervisor, Kenneth Alcon, also informed our acequia about the NRCS Acequia Initiative, which was a set aside specific to New Mexico for acequias to apply for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Parallel to that effort, one of our Commissioners, Paul Lujan, took the lead to request state funds for the project. At the time, the State Legislature had made a special $2 million appropriation to the Interstate Stream Commission which was intended for “acequia projects statewide.” The ISC administered the funds in a similar manner to the existing 90-10 program and referred to it as a one-time “Special Funding Opportunity.” There was an application process and projects were ranked higher if they had completed designs.

Part of the application process for the ISC funding was to submit up-to-date bylaws. Our acequia went through a months-long process of updating our bylaws, which had not been reviewed or amended since the 1980s. We had several meetings and made significant and substantive amendments to our bylaws with the assistance of the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA) and NM Legal Aid. With that assistance, our acequia was able to submit updated and current bylaws with our funding application to the ISC.

Thanks to years of effort, the NRCS design was completed in time to be eligible for the ISC funding. Meanwhile, the acequia was making progress to be eligible for the NRCS Acequia Initiative (EQIP). To qualify for the EQIP funding, the acequia members had to form a Joint Venture. It is important to keep in mind that EQIP is generally for conservation projects for individual landowners. The Joint Venture is a tool to pool resources together as individuals. To form a Joint Venture, we developed a separate set of bylaws and opened a separate bank account. Through the Joint Venture, we applied for the EQIP funding. In this process, we were fortunate to have received the assistance of David Manzanares, who works on contract for the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts (NMACD). Again, we worked closely with our local NRCS office as well as the Farm Service Agency (FSA). Linda Alcon, who works at FSA, attended meetings of the acequia to sign up each of the individual landowners for the FSA. This involves creating a farm record including a certification of income and control (ownership or lease) of property. Once the FSA farm record is completed for a producer, that person can apply for a range of USDA programs. For this particular project, being signed up for FSA was a requirement for eligibility for NRCS.

During this entire process, our acequia worked with the NMAA on our ICIP and on requests for Capital Outlay. On an annual basis, NMAA assisted our acequia with an ICIP that outlined our project goals, funding sources, and timelines. It was a useful tool to plan and manage our project. Our acequia also applied for Capital Outlay and was appropriated $15,000 during the 2013 legislative session by our State Representative Nick Salazar. The funding came from proceeds from the sale of Severance Tax Bonds (sold by the state). For the project to qualify for the bond sale, which occurs in June and December, the acequia had to be compliant with Governor Martinez’ Executive Order 2013-06, which requires that any governmental entity receiving state funds be current with audit and budget requirements.

Once our sources of funding were lined up, our acequia had to manage a procurement process compliant with State Law. This required us to prepare and publish a formal Request for Proposals (RFP). Jonathan Martinez at the ISC helped with every step of the procurement process. Our acequia received sealed bids and opened the bids in a public meeting. The Commission selected one of the bids and awarded the project to Barney and Sons (Clyde Alcon), a contracting company from the Mora area. Under the experienced leadership of Mr. Alcon, the construction of the project went smoothly and was completed on time and on budget. Another very important aspect of the construction process was that the NRCS provided an on-site inspector to be involved with monitoring the construction to ensure that the design specifications were followed. For our project, we were fortunate to work with Gilbert Borrego from the NRCS.

In order to be compliant with audit and budget requirements, our acequia had to catch up with reporting to the Office of the State Auditor. We had to complete a Tier 1 Certification Form (certifying that our annual expenditures were less than $10,000) for each of the years going back to 2011. Because we were under $10,000, we were not required to submit budgets to the Department of Finance and Administration. Our bonds were sold and the funding was available to us in 2016. However, the project was delayed by various factors and was not completed in the Fall of 2016 as originally planned. The construction was not completed until early 2017.

Since then we’ve learned that we are required to report to DFA for the year the Capital Outlay was expended. Additionally, because we spent Capital Outlay funding, we will be required to meet the requirements for Tier 3 in the tiered reporting system of the State Auditor. This will require us to complete a financial report similar to an audit (called an Agreed Upon Procedures Report, or AUP report) with the services of an Independent Public Accountant.

For acequias who are interested in working on a similar project, here are some basic ballpark figures that are very approximate to illustrate the general idea:

Total Cost of Presa:         $110,000

NRCS EQIP funds:             $60,000

Capital Outlay:                  $15,000

ISC Funds:                           $31,500

Acequia Match: $3,500

It is important to point out that the ISC funds were a 90-10 match, whereby the acequia was required to cover 10%. The portion not covered by the sum of NRCS and Capital Outlay, $35,000 was covered by the ISC (90%) and the acequia (10%). The acequia decided to cover this portion of the cost of the project with a one-time assessment on each of the members at a flat rate. Each of the parciantes paid about $300 each.

The original request for assistance from NRCS was submitted in July 2008. The project was finally completed in February 2017. It took nearly ten years but the project is beautifully constructed and it is off to a good start this Spring. Each year, several similar projects are completed by acequias around the state through a team effort of local leaders, state and federal agencies, and advocates like NMAA, NMACD, and NM Legal Aid. We are hopeful that the new presa will serve our acequia for many years to come and that this story of cooperation will guide the future generations when it is time to upgrade and adapt their infrastructure in the years to come.