Community Spotlight: Acequias off the Gila River in South West NM

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High water event at the headgate of Fort West Ditch- Photo taken by Linda Stailey

Interview with Linda Stailey written by Serafina Lombardi, NMAA Staff

The Gila acequias are lucky to have Linda Stailey as their unofficial spokeswomen. These Acequias were completely off the radar of NMAA until the late summer of 2016 – but NMAA couldn’t be happier having made their acquaintance. NMAA made a visita to the Gila and then they came up to our Congreso in Taos. While our acequias across the state are diverse, it is striking the passion and dedication that we have as land-based people for the water and community, as we are bonded by our deep inclination to defend and protect this way of life.

What is the history of your acequia, as you know it (or as you’ve been told)?

The original charter for the Fort West Ditch was issued in 1875. There were about 12-15 irrigators who proposed the charter, signed it and filed with the treasurer of the territory – in Santa Fe. Fort West Ditch, Gila Farm Ditch, and the Upper Gila Ditch are the only acequias still in operation in the valley, but at one time as many as 10 ditches in operation. The men who signed the Fort West charter had lands on some of the other diches.

The area was settled by Mormons early on, and they brought irrigation practices from Utah that had been successful there in the mid 1850s. The original irrigators were Maldonados (still on the acequia) and Guerreros, the other 50% was primarily anglo. The acequias still have minutes going back to the 1920s. It was in the last 12 years that we organized a regional, the Gila Basin Irrigation Commission, around the AZ settlement act which we see having long lasting impacts on acequias.

What kinds of crops does your acequia community grow?

 Primarily alfalfa, permanent pasture, a few small irrigators have home gardens, one irrigator in the valley is very involved in the Silver City farmers market. What is grown is mostly for local consumption. Three wire bales is about as big as we can manage about 60-80 lbs a piece. We buy new equipment to keep older equipment going . . . and every piece of metal has a story.













Repaired Point of Diversion for Fort West Ditch- Photo taken by Linda Stailey

What traditions and practices does your acequia community maintain? (Food and agriculture, limpia, etc.)

Before the Regional, we were not really communicating with other ditches, but we have learned to coordinate repairs to reduce transport costs of equipment.

Our Ditch is about 13-15 miles long. We used to have an annual cleaning – in our original charter there was a section outlining the kinds of equipment recognized and how labor would be valued, a Fresno, 2 boys and four horses could work off entire assessment – a shovel and one man, could not work off as much. . .  now we have a fellow in the valley with a track hoe, he cleans the ditch and sends us a bill. It’s easier and faster. We always have problems over right-of-way – tractor guys is not a landscaper – but we let folks know they have to move the mud if they don’t like it. It is difficult that so many pieces of property have been sold and the water rights sold to someone else –and people just don’t understand the importance of easements. A lawyer once told us to respond to those who want to move the ditch with: “you’ll come closer to asking God to change the length of day than to move a ditch”.

What is your irrigation season? (Time frame)

The water will run year round if we have a need for it and if there is water in the river. There are times when the river goes dry and when there is not enough for the 3 ditches – then we create a schedule to share. Fort West catches a lot of the Gila Farm Ditch wastewater, this helps a lot . . . We meet the end of January / early February and have– water in by the first of April. Sometimes we irrigate into October – first frost is in November. In the high desert we usually get 6 inches of rain per year, this year we just got 6 inches in August . . . 

What are your commissioners and mayordomos doing this time of year?
Not much this time of year – most of our work is in the spring. We don’t anticipate other meetings unless we have a major high water event and we need to get together and discuss repairs. Right now folks are sitting back and enjoying the green hills, and full water tanks. Big high water events are usually in winter months that can damage diversions.

Gila farm ditch is working with engineers to design a permanent diversion structure. At any given time we can have a 100 year flood, we can have 100 year flood every 5 years. But we can only take water during high water events. The San Francisco River can also be flooding at the same time below Clifton, then Commissioners come together. This is when commissioners call a special meeting to discuss repairs – we usually wait until the worst of the winter weather is over. We have repaired a diversion and had it washed out the next month.

What makes your acequia special?

I can tell you what I have told critics of the settlement – historically and culturally. This valley has fed the entire SW corner of NM, including Catron, Grants, Luna and Hidalgo Counties. If we did not have the water here this community, this country would dry up and blow away. We are fortunate to have the ditches maintained as well as they are to have the water when they need it. My husband’s family used to deliver food to Conservation Corp camps, they had a dairy and a truck farm – that is how they survived. Our kids had milk cows age 7 through high school.  Our daughter bought her first car and paid college tuition with her milk money. When we find someplace better to go we’ll move, but money can’t buy this – this is home.

This history, the culture, it’s priceless. Our youngest son just moved back . . . families are moving back to the valley. When the water came back the number of irrigators doubled. We are nowhere near dead. Other people would have you think this valley has had it, but no way – we’re here. But if we didn’t have the water it would not be possible. I have a view of the Mogollon mountain range from the far west end to just about the head waters of the Gila river. That mountain range is what feeds our river, river feeds ditches, and our ditches feed the valley. It’s important that the water stays in this valley.