NMSU Publishes New Research on NM Acequias

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by Emily Arasim, NMAA Youth Education Coordinator & Program Assistant

The New Mexico State University (NMSU) College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences recently published a new study which was over a decade in the making – “Acequias of the Southwestern United States: Elements of Resilience in a Coupled Natural and Human System”.

This report includes data and research that affirms acequia traditional knowledge. Specifically, the research suggests that acequias play a critical role in the health of the land and watersheds, and that social and community relationships are what make acequias resilient.  Information was drawn from case studies in El Rito in the Rio Chama watershed; Alcalde, along the Rio Grande; and the Rio Hondo north of Taos. It includes sections by Sylvia Rodríguez and José Rivera, amongst many other esteemed acequia scholars. Some of the key points in the research included the following:

Acequias connect communities to each other and to the local hydrology:

  • The practice of mutualismo or ayuda mutual (mutual aid, working together for the common good and survival) between neighbors is what has kept acequias flowing for hundreds of years. It is also what has given communities the strength to protect each other from harms including displacement and loss of land. Confianza (trust) and respeto (respect) are central to this system working.
  • The ditch weaves the fields together physically, while the acequia association weaves the neighborhood together socially. Increased dependence on the global economy and wage-jobs outside of our communities has, in some cases, led to decreased connection amongst parciantes within acequia and stream systems.
  • The ability of acequias to make their own, autonomous local decisions is key to us being able to adapt and overcome all types of stresses and changes.
  • Passing on knowledge about acequia governance, customs and the environment in the Spanish language is very important to the future of our acequias. Much of this knowledge can not be easily translated to English.

Acequias can contribute to aquifer recharge and may support river flows:

  • Unlined earthen ditches are, in most cases, best at supporting healthy environments. Natural seepage helps nurture vegetation and a diversity of plant, animal, bird and insect life.
  • Acequias make a significant impact on replenishing groundwater tables during the irrigation season – not just for the irrigated area, but also for surrounding drylands.
  • Common water conservation strategies such as ditch lining and drip irrigation, were found to be “fixes that backfire”, because the restriction of water seepage resulted in less replenishment of the groundwater aquifer. This made communities less resilient as communities depend on this groundwater, especially when ditches go dry.
  • During the three-year period of the study, over half of the water diverted into the Acequia de Alcalde returned to the river as surface water, and another third made its way into the shallow aquifer after first seeping into the soil of the acequia and fields. The study concluded, “Aquifer recharge and late season groundwater return flow are important hydrologic functions that result from acequia agriculture”. They did note that in other, dryer areas, less water is likely to make it into the river or groundwater.
  • Due to human changes to rivers – such as channeling, controlling and construction of flood-control levees – streams no longer meander and flood their valleys in the way they once did. The movement of acequias helps to restore something similar to that natural meandering flow of rivers. A loss of acequias and acequia irrigation would likely damage river water quality and quantity.

Acequia agriculture faces social and economic challenges:

  • In a survey of 95 acequia ranchers, it was found that the majority depended on off-farm employment or retirement as the main source of family income. Less than 10% of survey respondents said they grow crops other than hay, and only 5% said they would want to switch to growing other crops. The ability to grow or purchase enough hay to feed livestock through the winter months was the most common challenge ranchers reported.
  • When parciantes were surveyed about acequias vulnerability to climate change and severe drought, and asked to rate the success of different strategies to deal with it – working to improve soil to reduce evaporation was the most popular idea. Other popular responses were trying alternative irrigation technology; using cold frames to start plants earlier; and planting more native or heirloom crops.
  • Increasing the value and price of local food in local markets was found to be one of the key ways to help acequia farmers make better incomes, and therefore be able to stay in their communities.

In January 2021, NMAA partnered with NMSU to host an online event celebrating this research, and hearing from our community about future research topics that would benefit their acequias.

The full report can be downloaded on the NMSU website. Questions and future research ideas may be sent to: afernald@nmsu.edu

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