Acequia Recovery after the Hermit’s Peak Calf Canyon Fire: Part 1

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The Acequia del Medio de Tramperos continues to be flooded on a regular basis impacting homes, farmland, and the acequia waterway. – Photo by Christine Lujan

By Paula Garcia, NMAA Executive Director

It has been nearly two years since the start of the largest fire in New Mexico history. On a windy, dry day, April 6th, 2022, the United States Forest Service (USFS) ignited the Hermit’s Peak Fire. Just days later, the Calf Canyon Fire started when winds re-ignited smoldering slash piles from a USFS thinning project. The fires merged and on August 22nd, 2022, extreme winds drove the fire across a 15 mile run burning through tens of thousands of acres in a matter of hours. The Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon fire scorched the parched forests of the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo mountains across nearly 350,000 acres before monsoon rains finally put out the fire. Hundreds of families lost homes, while thousands of families were evacuated for several weeks only to return home shaken by the loss of the beautiful forests where we were raised. 

The summer rains that extinguished the fire were the start of the next chapter in the climate crisis for the area. With each rain, raging waters would bring burned soil and trees down the mountains into the valleys and rivers. Acequias were hit hard, with over 80 acequias damaged across 60 square miles in over a dozen watersheds. No words can describe the feeling of loss seeing acequias that took generations to build and maintain destroyed by flooding and “debris flows”.  After the flooding, some of them were barely recognizable with destroyed ditch banks, diversion structures, buried waterways, and broken/buried headgates. Some had extreme damage while many others had significant damage to make them inoperable. 

We are still in that moment. We are still digging out from 2022 and 2023 floods.

Local acequia leaders and advocates like NMAA and High Water Mark (HWM), who works on contract with NMAA, have worked tirelessly with government agencies to restore the acequias, and some progress has been made. However, we are still in “debris removal” mode with dozens of acequias. Some were cleared of debris during the summer of 2023 (just over a dozen) and several of those have to be cleared again as soon as possible to enable the start of the irrigation season. Most acequias have not been cleaned or repaired yet and only a handful have completed designs for needed repairs. This is because disaster programs are not designed for the unique needs of acequias and the rollout of acequia support has been extremely challenging. Many years of hard work lie ahead.

It is too early to be proclaiming any definitive lessons learned. However, we can share some updates about how agencies and acequia leaders have worked together to make disaster programs more accessible to acequias. These agencies include the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM), New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT), USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), US Forest Service (USFS), the HPCC Claims Office, and others. 

FEMA Public Assistance. As local governments, acequias are eligible for FEMA Public Assistance (PA), which can be used for emergency debris removal as well as long-term repairs. Early in the disaster, NMAA advocated vigorously to ensure that acequias would be able to participate in FEMA PA, that the documentation for eligibility was reasonable, and that the application process was accessible. We very much appreciated the advocacy of our Congressional delegation, particularly Senator Ben Ray Lujan and Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez. The cause was aided by timely media coverage of initial struggles with FEMA. NMAA and HWM assisted 45 acequias in applying for FEMA and with subsequent steps in the process.

State of New Mexico, NMDOT. Although the federal government took responsibility for the fire disaster, actually making federal programs workable for New Mexico, especially for acequias, is very challenging. In 2022, NMAA and acequia leaders raised concerns that acequia participation in FEMA PA for emergency debris removal was not feasible because the program works on a reimbursement basis and acequias were not able to pay for contractors up front to do the work and then get reimbursed by FEMA. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and NMDOT Secretary Ricky Serna worked with DHSEM to establish a program for acequia debris removal whereby NMDOT contractors complete the debris removal work and then the State gets reimbursed by FEMA. Without this arrangement, large acequia debris removal projects would have been impossible. NMDOT is efficient in their ability to procure contractors, a process necessary to mobilize required for disaster response and recovery. NMAA and HWM coordinated with NMDOT contractors to assist 39 acequias with applications 19 of which have completed debris removal so far. Thankfully, FEMA is considering recurring flooding events as eligible, which is extremely important to acequias. 

NRCS Emergency Watershed Program (EWP). Initially when NMAA tried to get acequias signed up for the EWP program, NRCS told us that acequias were ineligible for the program, which is intended to protect life and property. After a visit from the USDA Undersecretary Homer Wilkes and NRCS Chief Terry Cosby, a high level decision was made by Chief Cosby to allow acequias to participate in EWP. While that caused a delay of several months, once the program was given the green light, NRCS contracted with the NM Association of Conservation Districts to do assessments and engineering designs. NRCS is working with DFA as the sponsor for the HPCC EWP project and DFA is procuring the contractors. This program works similar to the NMDOT project such that the acequia does not have to pay for the work up front and get reimbursed. The agency handles all the procurement and implementation. NMAA and HWM assisted this process with outreach to acequias and referrals of acequias to NRCS and 79 acequias have been assessed so far. EWP funds can be used for either debris removal or for repairs due to flooding. The latter usually requires engineering designs, which is the current stage of recovery for most acequias in the program.  

HPCC Claims Office. According to the rule implementing the HPCC Fire Assistance Act, political subdivisions are required to use all available resources through FEMA PA before they can get a claim processed under the Fire Fund, which was allocated $4 billion for damage claims. In effect, acequias are not able to file claims directly with the HPCC Claims Office for the damages from the disasters. Only if they are denied by FEMA PA or if there are gaps in what is covered by FEMA PA can an acequia apply through the claims process. 

In 2024, the recovery efforts will continue. These updates are narrowly focused on the ongoing debris removal efforts, which will take years to complete because of recurring flooding from the burn scars. The number of acequias, the extensive landscape, and the complexity of disaster programs make the recovery effort extremely challenging. One of the major challenges acequias encounter in the recovery process is institutional capacity of agencies, supporters like NMAA and HWM, and the acequias themselves. Additional complicating factors have to do with the regulations that shape the programs. For example, projects are often delayed by compliance with environmental and historic preservation clearances required for the use of federal funds. 

Debris removal is just one part of recovery. Some acequias will need to be rebuilt, which will require designs and long-term funding, especially if future floods impact repaired infrastructure. Ultimately, the recovery has to happen at the watershed level, starting with the headwaters in the upper watersheds. While some work is happening across various partners, there is not one watershed plan or program that encompasses all the work needed to heal the mountains. FEMA funds are not directed toward on-the-ground watershed restoration and the HPCC claims process is based on individual claims. 

We lack a single program or funding source that can address the collective process of watershed restoration. There is work happening, albeit piecemeal. Part 2 of this article will be devoted to post-fire watershed restoration.

Finally, because of our role as advocates, NMAA would be remiss not to mention the policy implications of our lessons learned so far:

  • NMDOT Acequia Debris Removal: This program established specifically for the HPCC post-fire flooding should be institutionalized or codified to ensure that this is available to acequias as needed and in the future
  • NRCS EWP: Acequias should be eligible for EWP as a matter of policy and not have to wait for an executive decision by the NRCS Chief to ensure that implementation begins as soon as possible when a disaster happens. The program would be more effective if multiple engineers and construction contractors should be on contract to expedite the completion of designs for acequia repairs.
  • FEMA PA: The FEMA PA program is governed by the Stafford Act as well as agency rules and regulations. Given the frequency of climate disasters, including large-scale wildfires and post-fire flooding, we believe that the FEMA PA program needs an upgrade to be more responsive to the specific needs of those communities.

The year 2022 was catastrophic not only for those communities affected by the HPCC Fire (341,735 acres) and floods but also the Black Fire (325,133 acres), McBride Fire (6159 acres), and Cerro Pelado Fire (45,605 acres). Updates on those fires and floods will be the subject of another article. Our communities across vast areas are already affected by climate change. We were not prepared for the 2022 disasters and we are likely not prepared for future disasters. What we are doing now does not feel like preparation or adaptation. It feels more like survival. Being able to continue a land-based way of life in a burn scar will take a special kind of devotion. As we go forward into this uncertain future, the most important lesson so far is the importance of collective effort toward common goals and good faith collaboration. 

Over 300,000 acres affected in the Hermit’s Peak Calf Canyon Fire


Fire Epilogue ~ February 19, 2024

“Most days, it feels like we’re stuck in 2022. Memories are intertwined with the smell of smoke, the sound of wind, and the presence of government vehicles. I wear the burn scar on my body because I don’t have to see it to know that it’s there. And I feel it even when I leave. Other places, when I see green trees, I squint and imagine them black like my mountains. 

Watersheds once carpeted with green now look like black funnels that push rushing water into the streams, acequias, and farmlands. Once rounded with pine trees, our mountains look rocky and skeletal like a malnourished body. 

Sorrow and grief hang thick in the air as people wait for homes to be rebuilt. Acequias, flowing with crystalline waters for generations, are choked off with dead wood and burned mountain soil that washed down from the black mountains. Memories are all that remain of some of our favorite places for shade, picnics, and walks among the trees and the small, temporal streams that once flowed. 

Amid the loss, there is an abiding devotion to this beloved land. People are staying, living in this radically different landscape, and pushing forward with tenacity and grit. People are tangled in red tape trying to get compensated for their loss, setting aside grief and healing for now. While trying to move on, we must also turn our attention to healing the land. The acequias are a common space for recovery and healing where we work the land with our hands, shovels, and backhoes. It will take collective action to heal our watersheds and repair our earthen acequias again and again. 

Ash and sediment clog the Acequia del Alto al Norte, where locals hire a backhoe operator to re-open several times a year.


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