Written by Adrienne Rosenberg
My heart sank as I drove over the bridge last week. Here on both sides of Highway 75, the Embudo River pockmarked the stream bed interrupting mud and cobble and willow. It pooled right around the presa for Acequia de la Plaza but went no further. Today my heart broke. It is completely dry on both sides of the bridge.
Most of us who read the New Mexico Acequia Association newsletter know that our acequias, while resilient, are extremely vulnerable. We not only know, we are experiencing it firsthand. Land division, residential development of agricultural land, water fragmentation due to urbanization, climate change, loss of traditional knowledge, aging population of parciantes, etc. all contribute to the potential deterioration of our communities’ most precious resource and our rights to it. Similarly, our native pollinators (bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, and beetles) are experiencing grave decline. Land loss and fragmentation of habitat, climate change (which affects timing of blooms, pollinator lifecycles, and etc.), pesticide poisoning, and disease are all causes to their perils. It is no coincidence that the challenges to our acequias and our native pollinators overlap as they are interdependent features of our landscape. Yet within this mutual tragedy of each, there is a solution for both. I propose that by planting pollinator refuges, we can preserve and support pollinators, water rights, and the land itself.
Pollinator refuges are spaces that are intentionally planted to invite pollinators to forage and create nesting sites. When I emailed NMAA Staff Attorney Enrique Romero about whether pollinator refuges could be considered legally a ‘beneficial use’ of acequia waters, he commented, “In my opinion, it is beneficial use provided that irrigation is occurring in a manner that is not wasteful and there is substantial effort on the part of the water right owner to irrigate and ‘cultivate’ the garden. Another important aspect of this question is whether the ‘gardens’ are actually planted or part of the native vegetation that would grow without irrigation. Case law on the subject of beneficial use suggests that whether a use is beneficial depends on whether the community in which the use is taking place considers the use beneficial, i.e. whether it is ‘socially accepted’ as a beneficial use.” My hope is that by reading this article, members of acequias across New Mexico and Southern Colorado will begin to consider pollinator refuges as socially acceptable use of the water.
Pollinators are a keystone species, because many other species rely on pollinators for their survival. As indicator species, their health signifies the health of the surrounding ecosystem. Even though riparian areas represent only 2% of the overall area in the southwestern desert, it is not hard to imagine pollinators being a crucial element to the delicacy of these ecosystems. For example, studies have demonstrated that diverse plant communities along the riparian areas support insects which become food for fish. Bosque habitats have been documented to support 42% of mammals, 38% birds, 33% reptiles, and 13% of the amphibians of the arid West. And more than 90% of birds rely on insects during at least one stage of their life. Our acequias expand these riparian areas as well as provide habitat for various species, including native pollinators.
Given that so many are unable to farm their fields, a pollinator refuge may be a simple solution for using the water in a low impact, low maintenance way while maintaining water rights. Three years ago, I planted a pollinator garden behind the Embudo Valley Library with a grant from the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and the help of several volunteers. I selected wildflower and grass seeds that were native to the high desert and drought tolerant. I also planted hedges and perennials as well as built pollinator hotels and drilled holes into logs. My intention was to make the garden as low maintenance as possible while also planning for upcoming water shortages on the ditch. Since the first season, I have hardly weeded as the garden has suppressed most of the unwanted plants, including bindweed. The wildflower meadow can also serve as a cover crop that maintains the soil biome and keeps the top soil intact all growing season. Furthermore, the garden has benefited the community as a seedbank for those who wish to invite pollinators to their land. Each year in the garden, I revel in the return of lacewings, ladybugs, wasps, bumble bees, swallowtails, and more as well as the stain glass, season long array of blooms.
Native pollinators are equally if not more important to pollinating crops and native plants than the honey bees, which were introduced to North America and did not evolve with our native ecosystems. Considered to be potentially more “efficient” and “effective”, native pollinators, as studies indicate, are well suited to our native plants as well as many of our food crops. However, the same efforts to support the health of native pollinators will also bolster honey bees since each peruse many of the same flowers. Since the intention for a pollinator refuge is to have a Spring until Fall succession of blooms, a parciante may be able to rent their field to a beekeeper to earn some extra income and be able to receive help with irrigation. We can call the parciante a sort of passive micro-rancher.
As farmers and ranchers, we are the barometers of climate change. Scientists can eloquently quantify the effects, but we can both quantify and qualify them, because we experience these calamities intimately. Therefore, we are the ones who are proactive in maintaining our communities’ dignity and livelihood. By providing habitat in the form of contiguous pollinator refuges, we can repopulate our watersheds with pollinator habitat while promoting pollination and maintaining the access to our water. This year may not be the year to plant more than what we can water, but consider scattering some seeds for our pollinators and for our acequias in the Fall with hopes of next Spring.
Email me with comments or suggestions at Rosenberg.firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Plants of the Southwest https://plantsofthesouthwest.com/
- The Xerces Society Guide, Attracting Native Pollinators and Farming with Native Beneficial Insects
- NMSU Pollinator Project http://aces.nmsu.edu/ipm/pollinator-project.html
- Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program https://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/NewMexico/PFW_home.cfm
Bio: Adrienne Rosenberg lives in Embudo, New Mexico. She owns Woven Web Farm, which grows gourmet mushrooms, and is an audio documentarian. Her work has focused on local knowledge and stories of resilience through the land.