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Hundreds Gather for Congreso de las Acequias in Taos

Mentees honor their acequia mentors. Congreso atendees were also invited to take a blue ribbon to give to someone important who has passed down acequia and farming traditions to them. Photo via NMAA

By Paula Garcia, NMAA Executive Director

The coffee was ready by 7:30am. Farmers and ranchers, who are inclined to be early birds, started arriving before 8:00am for on-site registration for the Congreso de las Acequias, the annual membership meeting of the New Mexico Acequia Association. Soon after, the conference room started to come to life with Las Mañanitas, the traditional mexican ballad that welcomes the day. On an early Saturday morning in Taos, nearly 400 acequia parciantes and supporters from across the state gathered for the Congreso de las Acequias, which was also the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the New Mexico Acequia Association. The previous day, Friday afternoon, the Taos Soil and Water Conservation District hosted a tour of local acequia projects that would contribute to the long-term viability of irrigated agriculture in the Taos Valley. 

As is customary, the official start of the Congreso was Canción de las Acequias, a song written by David García, Roger Montoya, and Cipriano Vigil, which has become the anthem of the New Mexico Acequia Association. A collective of musicians, led by David García and Jeremías Martínez, and which included former Lt. Governor Roberto Mondragon, performed music throughout the day. In the Bendición de las Aguas, waters from acequias and rivers throughout the state were shared and mixed together with a prayer for the well-being of families and communities and for protection of waters that are believed to be a don divino or divine gift. 

The Congreso de las Acequias is the gathering and governing body of the New Mexico Acequia Association. As a federational body of regional delegations, one of the important moments in the annual convening is the roll call of regions which illustrates the statewide scope of the acequia community in New Mexico. While the gathering is infused with culture from the very beginning, the Congreso is very much a meeting of governance, where leaders come together and affirm their core values and to make collective decisions that form the basis for the policy positions and strategic directions. 

The day included a moving tribute to the late Senator Carlos Cisneros including testimonials from important leaders in his district who spoke of his commitment, work ethic, and the wit that so many of his friends and colleagues had grown fond of over the years. Esther García, former mayor of Questa and former commissioner on Cabresto Lake Irrigation Community Ditch, and Mary Mascareñas, long-time school board member for the Peñasco Independent Schools and former commissioner on Acequia del Llano de San Juan Nepumoceno, shared their memories of the Senator as a friend and as an advocate for rural communities. Musicians ended the tribute with a despedida, a traditional farewell ballad. 

Harold Trujillo, NMAA President, and Paula García, Executive Director, provided a retrospective of the NMAA’s 30 years of advocacy and contributions to the acequia movement in New Mexico. Special thanks was given to the Taos Valley Acequia Association as the first regional association to help form the Congreso de las Acequias as a statewide governing body. A timeline included some of the major milestones in acequia advocacy over the past thirty years, including important pieces of legislation and the founding dates of some of NMAA’s education and youth programs. Attendees were invited to add to the timeline with important dates from their own acequias.

A highlight of the day was a segment entitled, “Sharing Querencia Across Generations.” It was a time of recognition of both mentees and their mentors who have made a conscious effort to keep traditional knowledge alive across generations. The recognitions were an expression of gratitude by mentees for their mentors and an affirmation that the acequia tradition would continue for another generation. Chavela Trujillo of Abiquiu recognized her mom Isabel Trujillo, Juanita Revak from Jemez Springs recognized her father Gilbert Sandoval, Marcos Valdez recognized his mentor Kenny Salazar from La Mesilla, Zia Martinez recognized her mentor Lorenzo Candelaria, Nicanor Ortega recognized his mentor Miguel Santistevan, and Donne Gonzales recognized her mom Juliet Garcia-Gonzales. The heartfelt recognition illustrated the intergenerational nature of the acequia movement.

Other topics on the agenda included a youth mapping project with the Carson National Forest and presentations by participants in NMAA’s Sembrando Semillas youth project and Los Sembradores Farmer Training project. For some of the youth participants, the Congreso is one of the most important public speaking experiences of their young lives. It is part of NMAA’s leadership development work to include youth as speakers at the Congreso.

Another highlight of the day was a performance by renowned poet Olivia Romo, who shared a poem entitled “Fighting the Tragedy of the Commons” in which she critiques the privatization of communal waters of the acequias and pays homage to the elders who dedicate decades of their lives to defend water rights in the adjudication process. Her poem recognizes the work of the acequia leaders of the Rio de las Gallinas Acequia Association in the Las Vegas area who fought for fifty years to overturn a doctrine for the city to have an expanding water right and who continue to fight the fragmentation of their acequias.

Vibrant and spirited conversations took place during the lunch hour which was followed by an awards ceremony honoring two individuals who have likely spend the most years of their life directly involved with NMAA’s grassroots organizing and advocacy work. Harold Trujillo was honored as a co-founder of NMAA in 1989 and David Benavides was honored for his nearly 30 years of service as an attorney dedicated primarily to acequia water law. In the midst of the festivities, volunteers Martha Trujillo, Patrick Blumm, Olivia Romo, and Priscilla Romo worked the silent auction as an NMAA fundraiser.

The day concluded with the adoption of a series of resolutions that were proposed by NMAA’s regional delegates, leadership caucuses, and policy working group. Generally, NMAA’s resolutions express a policy statement or a proposal for a new programmatic direction. There were four policy resolutions addressing a range of issues including opposition to proposed exploratory mining in the upper Pecos watershed, support for expanding the use of a fund for acequia legal expenses, and details regarding the guidelines for the newly created Acequia Infrastructure Fund. Another resolution generated by caucuses involving youth and young adults urged NMAA to implement a project to document storytelling by community members and elders. All resolutions passed unanimously in large part due to the extensive participation in writing the resolutions well in advance of the Congreso.

The 30th Anniversary Celebration was a day to celebrate history and the passing of the torch to new generations. The event was a success with the teamwork of the NMAA staff and our much-appreciated volunteers. It will long live in the memories of those who were there. Que Vivan las Acequias!

Additional Photos:

Acequia roll call. Photo via Seth Roffman/Green Fire Times
Bendición del Agua. Photo via Seth Roffman/Green Fire Times
Concilio Member introductions. Photo via Seth Roffman/Green Fire Times
Bendición del Agua. Photo via Seth Roffman/Green Fire Times
Ofrenda. Photo via Seth Roffman/Green Fire Times
Despedida to Carlos Cisneros. Photo via Seth Roffman/Green Fire times
Teatro Acequiero. Photo via NMAA
NMAA Sembrando Semillas youth program shares their visions for the future of their acequias. Photo via NMAA
NMAA 2019 Los Sembradores Farm Apprentices, and NMAA staff, share about their year. Photo via NMAA
Olivia Romo shares her poem ‘Fighting the Tragedy of the Commons’. Photo via NMAA
David Benavides (left) and Harold Trujillo (right) receive awards for their outstanding service to acequia communities. Photos via NMAA

A Retrospective on NMAA’s Policy Achievements

In 2013 NMAA hosted a rally to encourage the passage of a new Farm Bill. Photo: Serafina Lombardi

By David Benavides, New Mexico Legal Aid Attorney 

When I think of the New Mexico Acequia Association and its influence on the state as a whole, I think about the long arc of New Mexico history and the fact that NMAA was formed at a point when there was a historic need for acequias to gain back some of the sense of self-determination they had before modern times. 

When New Mexico became a state in 1912, acequias were one of its strongest institutions.  Elephant Butte reservoir did not yet exist, nor did the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), nor most of the larger scale agricultural districts.  Those areas were all primarily acequia agriculture, which was the backbone of agriculture in the state. As such, a great deal of deference was given to the authority that acequias had over their water rights, their easement rights, and their locally unique systems of water allocation.  Any water law or policy that acequias would have felt they needed for their own defense they probably could have easily passed in the Legislature. No one at that time could have imagined a future in which acequias would need protection or would need to be recognized and respected as valuable to the state.

78 years later, the picture was quite different.  The state’s population had almost quintupled from 330,000 in 1910 to 1.5 million in 1990, and one-third of those people lived in the Albuquerque area, which had seen its acequias largely absorbed into the MRGCD.  A similar process took place in Lower Rio Grande with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. The San Juan-Chama Project was completed. These were three examples where the state had put its resources into large, expensive water projects, and had put its faith in the State Engineer to develop them. The State Engineer in turn required that water rights be more exactly quantified, and so a dozen stream adjudication suits were filed, and all of a sudden thousands of acequia parciantes were defendants in state-initiated lawsuits, and the validity of many long-held water rights were questioned.  Quantifying water rights in turn led to water rights being analyzed outside of the context of the community and the acequia that gave rise to those rights. Proposals were made to transfer acequia water rights to distant areas, without regard for the effects on the community that would lose those rights. This marked a change, where water was being treated as a commodity, rather than as an essential and integral part of rural agricultural communities. Some people began advocating – to address the issue of getting water rights where they were needed for development, industry, or municipalities – that a New Mexico-wide water market run by the state be established. The assumption in this idea was that water rights would be moved out of agriculture to whoever or wherever offered the most money.

Acequias were getting lost in this new way of thinking.  They were becoming invisible outside of their local communities, their needs neglected.  

This extremity of position was one that would spur NMAA to place a great emphasis on policy work as one way of addressing the loss of acequia self-determination and prominence. Through its Concilio, Policy Working Groups, and Congreso de las Acequias (a federation of regional acequia associations), the organization has engaged grassroots leadership to assist in identifying and addressing their most pressing concerns. NMAA has worked at the local, state and federal levels to create policies that address those concerns. After 30 years it can truly be said that NMAA has made acequias visible once again. 

Some examples of NMAA’s work influencing decision-makers include:

  • Water Right Transfers.  Acequias now have decision-making power over proposed transfers of acequia water rights, thanks to a law NMAA passed in 2003.
  • Water Banking.  NMAA several times defeated in the Legislature bills to set up statewide water marketing or statewide water banking.  Turning that conversation toward a more useful avenue, NMAA instead enacted a state law in 2003 for local water banking, whose purpose is not to market water rights but rather to protect water rights from being lost for non-use.
  • Condemnation.  NMAA passed a bill in 2009 prohibiting cities from trying to condemn acequia water rights.
  • Easement protection.  Passed in 2005, Acequia mayordomos and commissioners now have more legal remedies available to them for situations where a landowner is not respecting an acequia’s right-of-way or where a landowner is blocking or interfering with the acequia.  
  • Tort claims.  Like other public entities, acequias and their members, officers and employees are now shielded against tort lawsuits as of 2006.
  • Notice of State Engineer Water Right Transfers. In 2019, NMAA passed a law expanding the outdated system of OSE legal notices being published only in newspapers – adding on-line notice, assisting acequias in their ability to file a protest.
  • Liens for non-payment of dues.  Acequias now have a simpler process for placing liens on property after receiving a Magistrate court judgment for non-payment of dues as a way of inducing parciantes to come current on their dues.
  • Funding for acequias.  NMAA has successfully advocated many times for various types of funding for acequias the state level including funding for infrastructure improvements, adjudication expenses, and legal and technical assistance on governance issues. 
  • Federal funding for acequias. For years, NMAA worked with NM Association of Conservation Districts and our Congressional Delegation to make acequias as local governments eligible for EQIP funding for infrastructure. This was finally achieved in the 2018 Farm Bill.
  • Easement/Maintenance rights on federal land.  NMAA has campaigned to get federal agencies – particularly the Forest Service – to honor the easement rights of acequias that cross federal lands.  Including the right to do maintenance and improvements without the cost and delay of getting a permit from the agency. After twenty years of NMAA working on this issue, in 2019 we achieved a Guidance Document from the USFS directing their field offices to cease requiring permits for the repair and replacement of existing acequia structures. 
  • Supporting local governments to protect Acequias. NMAA has collaborated with local governments to strengthen ordinances that protect acequia easements, acequia served water rights, and agricultural land.
  • Court advocacy:  NMAA has also weighed in on a number of court cases involving important questions of acequia rights and water rights.  Most recently, NMAA filed an amicus brief in the New Mexico Court of Appeals, successfully defending the right of an acequia to hold its meetings in Spanish.  

Reflecting on how this was accomplished:

 In the movies, great popular movements and political change happen as if by magic – the lead character makes a speech and the world changes!  In reality, this type of progress is never made simply because you are on the side of what is right. Good ideas are almost always met with resistance, and overcoming that resistance takes a tremendous amount of effort and organizing. The gains that acequias have won over these past 30 years happened because, fortunately, acequias had several key ingredients for success:

  • Statewide Leadership.  For acequias to come together after centuries of acting locally and autonomously took a certain rarely-found type of leadership – one that was patient and credible and that inspired confidence in the vision of acequias moving beyond their local spheres of influence and building an organized statewide presence.  Slowly at first, and then accelerating under Paula Garcia’s leadership beginning in 1998, acequias joined together in a way they never had before.
  • Local Leadership. Every victory turned on the fact that countless acequia leaders stepped forward at a crucial point in time.  For example, when the water transfer law was passed giving acequias the right to decide on water transfers, each acequia had to amend its bylaws to include this new power.  Without hundreds of acequias holding meetings they would not have the trasfer protection under the law.
  • Legislative Leadership.  Acequias in New Mexico have been blessed with some of the most dedicated legislators working on their behalf.  Two stand out in particular: the late former House Speaker Ben Lujan, Sr., and Senator Carlos Cisneros, whose passing we now mourn.  They sponsored the most important of the legislation listed above. They never gave up, but remained committed to these bills until they would finally pass.  These two exceptional men exemplified what it means to be a public servant and the acequias of New Mexico are fortunate to have had them by their side.
  • Collaboration and Partnerships. NMAA has worked with a variety of organizations and entities in our advocacy through the years. NMAA’s closest partner in visioning these changes has been New Mexico Legal Aid. Additionally, NMAA is grateful for its partners across the Agricultural Community, various governmental agencies, those with interests in conservation, water resources and open government. NMAA’s issues have been ones that have often led disparate groups to find common ground in our values of protecting the land, water and its people.

The policy achievements listed here are a mere sampling of NMAA’s work. While acequias have made great strides working together, continued advocacy is vital for us not to lose the ground we have gained. Economic interests are still driving many decisions concerning water, new issues are constantly emerging, and changes long in the making such as demographic shifts, a move away from an ag-based economy and climate change, to name just a few, must be reckoned with. Through it all, NMAA is committed to being a platform that offers acequias a voice, to share our visions for policy change and to advocate together.

By David Benavides, New Mexico Legal Aid Attorney 

Job Openings – Acequia Education Coordinator & Acequia Program Assistant

The NMAA is seeking to hire two full-time positions as follows:
 
Acequia Education Coordinator: The New Mexico Acequia Association’s Acequia Education Coordinator is a full-time position that is responsible for providing acequia consultations as well as stakeholder and youth education. The position is focused primarily on responding to requests for assistance from acequias in matters relating to acequia governance.  The Acequia Education Coordinator will assist acequias through one-on-one sessions by phone, email, or in-person meetings.  Primary topics for acequia consultations include acequia bylaws, Open Meetings Act compliance, acequia easements, elections, and infrastructure planning, financial compliance, among other topics.  CLICK HERE TO REVIEW full Education Coordinator job description, overview of responsibilities, and qualification requirements.

Acequia Program Assistant: The Acequia Program Assistant is a full-time position. The primary responsibilities of the position are assist the Acequia Governance Team in providing services for acequias such as consultation on water rights, infrastructure, mapping, and governance as well as to provide education to youth and stakeholders about acequias. This includes assistance with database management and generation of reports. The Program Assistant will work as part of NMAA’s Acequia Governance Team which meets regularly. CLICK HERE TO REVIEW full Program Assistant job description, overview of responsibilities, and qualification requirements.

Anyone interested in applying for these positions should submit a letter of interest and resume via email to juliet@lasacequias.org. The positions will remain open until filled. Questions should be directed the same email or by calling the NMAA at 505-995-9644.