by David F. Garcia, NMAA Education & Outreach Coordinator
While New Mexico experienced severe drought in 2021, another challenge faced by many acequias was flooding from extreme rainfall. During Memorial Day weekend in May, numerous acequia communities in the Upper Hondo experienced devastating flooding which prompted Governor Luján Grisham to issue two state emergency declarations for Lincoln and Chaves counties. According to locals, it was perhaps the worst flood disaster to impact this area since the floods brought by Hurricane Dolly in 1968.
The NMAA team was invited by Jackie Powell of the Upper Hondo Water Users Association to accompany site visits by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the New Mexico Department of Homeland security and Emergency Management (DHSEM), and a representative of Senator Ben Ray Luján’s office to assess damage. Powell emphasized the need for acequias to better understand the emergency assistance bureaucracy at both the local and federal levels.
At a meeting, Gregory Suko, Recovery Officer for DHSEM, introduced the FEMA and DHSEM teams, and explained their role in coordinating emergency response. These two teams directly worked with Jackie Powell, who made individual contacts with local acequias officers. In addition, Powell also invited an engineering consultant to help with accessing local costs estimates of the damage.
We headed out from the office in a caravan following Powell. It is important to note the importance of Powell’s position as a liaison between the acequias and the state agencies. Without her vast local knowledge of the watershed, it would have been very difficult to know where the flood damage is located, “you wouldn’t be able to see the damage from the road and they [agency officials] would not know where to go.”
The group visited the following acequias:
- Antonio Sanchez Ditch: David Montez, an acequia parciente and property owner, retold how flood waters from the nearby canyons brought down trees, large stones, and even moved vehicles through his yard. Mayordomo, Richard Ford, led us on a walk to identify acequia infrastructure areas that had sustained the most damage. The acequia, which is enclosed in pipe, was damaged when flood waters broke the pipeline, which interrupted the flow. Quick estimates for repair of the breach were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars because of the need to repair a significant length of the pipeline.
- L. Gallegos Ditch: Mayordomo George Mendoza led the group to view heavily silted areas. He stated that sand had filled in their diversion gate, and had damaged their diversion dam preventing the water levels from rising high enough to fill the presa. An important point made here by one of the FEMA representatives was that the federal government could only remediate a site to pre-existing flood conditions.
- Upper Chosas Ditch: Mayordomo Richard Montoya led the teams to view damage to the main headgate, which collapsed during the flooding. The diversion was buried under silt and debris and it was difficult to imagine how it looked before the flooding. It was also mentioned that 600 feet of the main acequia pipe would need to be repaired or replaced because it was filled with silt. Estimates of the damage were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Powell continued to lead site visits for an additional two days visiting several other acequias, and expressed concern regarding the need for acequias not only in her watershed, but regionally, to be prepared for such disasters. With the short-term and long-term effects of drought and wildfires, acequias are susceptible to flooding damage to their infrastructure by any storm system that may come.
Powell outlined some lessons learned to share with fellow acequias including:
- Disaster Handbook: One of the most important takeaways from this experience was the importance of a quick response and knowing how to navigate state and federal agencies. FEMA and DHSEM have resources available for rebuilding infrastructure, but there are important constraints and rules to understand. For example, a Governor’s Emergency Declaration will release $750,000 of emergency aid to a county. A federal declaration is needed to make available resources from FEMA which can be significantly higher, depending on the extent of damage. There are also different programs that serve different purposes including the NRCS Emergency Watershed Program and various FSA Disaster Programs, both of which are separate and distinct from FEMA or DHSEM funding. It is vital that acequias and their parciantes understand the programs and are informed of their deadlines. More information on these programs are provided at the end of the article.
- Local Liaisons: Jackie Powell illustrated the importance of having local acequia leaders who can communicate with FEMA and DHSEM. Counties and towns have emergency managers to coordinate with agencies, and acequias need a similar person who can be a liaison and assist with doing damage assessments. It is also helpful for acequias to have a liaison who can coordinate with their local county emergency manager to effectively respond to disasters.
- Local Mapping and Documentation: Because emergency funding can be used only to restore the pre-existing condition of infrastructure, it is vital that acequias have good documentation of their infrastructure including GPS points, photos, and descriptions. Absent this documentation, it is difficult for agency officials to estimate the cost of replacement of acequia infrastructure. In some cases, acequia irrigation works were completely washed out or covered with silt and their original condition was difficult to visualize.
The following are some useful resources for local communities in the event of a disaster:
- The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM). Local emergency managers should immediately contact DHSEM when an emergency or disaster exceeds county resources. The Response and Recovery Team is responsible for overseeing and coordinating state-level all-hazards emergency response and recovery preparedness, response, recovery and homeland security activities within NM. Their 24 hour hotline is 505-476-9600. A Governor’s emergency declaration can make available $750,000 per county for disaster response resources.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – The US President can make an emergency declaration or can declare a major disaster within 30 days of the occurrence if it is determined the impact of the damage is of such severity that it is beyond the combined capabilities of state and local governments to respond. An emergency or a major disaster declaration provides a wide range of federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure, including funds for both emergency and permanent works. This is in addition to the state funds made available through a Governor’s declaration.
- The NRCS Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program – is a federal emergency recovery program that helps local communities recover after a natural disaster strikes. It offers technical and financial assistance to help local communities relieve imminent threats to life and property caused by floods, fires, windstorms and other natural disasters that impair a watershed. State or federal declarations are not necessary. EWP is a cost share program – 75% of the cost is covered by NRCS and the 25% is the local share. In the summer flooding in the Upper Hondo, Lincoln County and the local SWCD covered the 25% local cost share. This program was used to remove debris from the river where additional flooding placed property or life at risk. Some of this work was done within days of the flood.
- NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Emergency – While not designed to be an emergency response program, EQIP can play a vital role in assisting producers recover from natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and drought. It provides financial assistance to repair and prevent the excessive soil erosion caused or impacted by natural disasters. These practices include activities like stream bank restoration, grassed waterways and buffers. NRCS-funded conservation practices protect your land from erosion, support disaster recovery and repair, and can help mitigate loss from future natural disasters. Socially disadvantaged and limited resource farmers, Tribes, veterans and young/beginning farmers are eligible for an increased payment rate and may receive advance payment of up to 50% to purchase materials and services needed to implement conservation practices included in their EQIP contract.
- The FSA Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) – helps farmers and ranchers to repair damage to farmlands caused by natural disasters and to help put in place methods for water conservation during severe drought. The funding for ECP is determined by Congress. Up to 75% of the cost to implement emergency conservation practices can be provided, however the final amount is determined by the committee reviewing the application. Qualified limited resource/ socially disadvantaged, and beginning farmers/ranchers may earn up to 90% cost-share. The FSA County Committee is able to approve applications up to $125,000 – while $125,001 to $250,000 requires state committee approval. Amounts over $250,000 require the approval of the national FSA office. Federal or state emergency declarations are not always required. In the case of the Upper Hondo flooding, some landowners were planning to submit requests for funding assistance to replace fencing that had been destroyed by floodwaters.