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Remembering Carlos Cisneros

By Paula Garcia, NMAA Executive Director

It is impossible to discuss the acequia movement in New Mexico during the past three decades without including Senator Carlos Cisneros as a major player. He was one of the longest-serving Senators and his passing came as a sudden shock to his friends, loved ones, and supporters. He was a staunch advocate of acequias during his 34 year tenure as a lawmaker, sponsoring numerous bills and memorials for acequias over the years in close partnership and solidarity with the state’s acequia leadership.

The first time I met Senator Cisneros, he was walking in a parade for the Mora fiestas sometime in the 1980s. Years later, as the new Executive Director of the NMAA in 1998, I met him again as Chairman of the Senate Conservation Committee, the gateway through which all water bills must pass. Over the years, he would be the key sponsor of acequia and water bills, many of them with Speaker Ben Lujan of Nambe.

Over the years, he became not only an ally in our acequia cause, but also a close friend. Most of the time I spent with him was at the Capitol or at interim committee meetings. In between talking about legislation and politics, I learned a little bit about his personal history, including that he was the youngest in a large family and his parents died when he was a boy. He was raised mostly by an older sister who he continued to visit on a regular basis and help with chores around the house and yard. His parents operated a ranch and he remained connected to Acequia del Llano in Questa. Although he was not an active rancher, his roots in the land informed his values as a legislator and eventually as one of New Mexico’s greatest acequia advocates.

He started his role in leadership with his union at the mine in Questa. He was a welder, eventually earning a leadership role as a union steward. He became a Taos County Commissioner and was later appointed to the State Senate, where he would continue to serve for over three decades. He once told me that when he started as a Senator, he would work the graveyard shift at the mine and drive to Santa Fe for the legislative session the next morning. He continued to be a staunch supporter of labor and unions during his long career as a lawmaker.

Our current NMAA President, Harold Trujillo, often credits Carlos Cisneros with being a co-founder of the organization, since he passed a memorial in 1989 commemorating the founding of the organization. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, when NMAA began to be engaged in legislative advocacy, that the Senator would begin passing a string of legislation that would re-shape the water policy framework in New Mexico by strengthening the water management and governance powers of acequias. Over the course of two decades, starting in 1998, the Senator would sponsor legislation with origins in NMAA’s grassroots policy advocacy.

Perhaps his most significant pieces of acequia legislation were those that he passed in 2003, with Speaker Ben Lujan as the co-sponsor in the House of Representatives: 1) acequia authority to approve or deny water transfer applications and 2) acequia authority to operate water banks to internally reallocate water rights and prevent loss for non-use. Following these bills, Senator Cisneros also created a funding stream for the Acequia and Community Ditch Education Program, which to this day is a major funding source for NMAA’s education and outreach work. Since the establishment of the program, NMAA has worked directly with over 500 acequias in updating their bylaws and developing infrastructure plans.

Even when acequia bills encountered opposition from strong interests, such as real estate developers or industry, he remained steadfast in his support of acequias. One of our elders said about him, “El Carlos no se raja.” (In English, “Carlos never gives up.”)

One of the controversial pieces he carried was a memorial about Otowi gage, a gaging point that has been a barrier to transfers from northern New Mexico to the areas south, including Santa Fe and Albuquerque. His memorial stated that it was in the public welfare of the State of New Mexico that the existing policy of not allowing transfers across the gage as a de-facto protection for areas north of the gage (located north of Pojoaque). After a three hour floor debate and split vote, Carlos remarked, “You acequias are getting me in the middle of all your battles!”

He would later go on to sponsor legislation affirming acequia easements, clarifying the flexibility in the width of acequia easements, providing stronger enforcement powers for acequias, clarifying tort immunity for acequia volunteers, and providing protections for land fallowed as a result of drought from losing their agricultural special valuation method. Most recently, he passed a bill requiring improved public notice procedures for water right applications after learning at a Land Grant Interim committee that rural communities were not being properly notified about water transfers.

During all of the years of carrying acequia bills, he served not only as a sponsor but also a teacher and mentor on the legislative process. He would always insist that when carrying a bill that we as the NMAA team diligently work to gain the support of his fellow legislators. He would say, “Make everyone understand why acequias are important and then you can gain support for your bills.” He took an active interest in every step of the process and would go the extra mile to be present for votes, sometimes running back and forth in the Capitol when he had committee hearings scheduled concurrently. Over the years, we also forged friendships with his staff and analysts who he urged to help us in every way possible to get bills passed.

An area where he had some of his greatest impact was with funding. He ensured that every year the acequia program was funded with $1.9 million in recurring funding to the Interstate Stream Commission. In years when there was more Capital Outlay, such as in 2014 and most recently in 2019, he took the lead in adding another $2 million for the ISC acequia program. Additionally, the culmination of these years of funding advocacy was to create the Acequia and Community Ditch Infrastructure Fund – a highlight of his legislative career.

In the 2019 legislation session, Senator Cisneros, with co-sponsors Senator Pete Campos, Senator Richard Martinez, as well as House Representatives Andrea Romero and Bobby Gonzales, passed legislation creating a $2.5 million fund with recurring funding from the Irrigation Works Construction Fund, a trust fund intended for irrigation and a beneficiary of the Land Grant Permanent Fund. This ensures a steady, recurring source of funding for acequia projects for generations to come.

New Mexico lost in Senator Carlos Cisneros a champion for the rights of rural communities to retain control and democratic decision-making over their water. He understood the unique issues facing rural New Mexico and remained a steadfast advocate throughout his career. As an acequia champion, he lifted our voices to the highest levels of policymaking in New Mexico and gave us a seat at the table. He never wavered in his support for acequias, even in the face of strong political forces that countered our collective efforts. He used his position for good. For that, we remember Senator Carlos Cisneros with great affection, con mucho carino. Estimado Senador, gracias por su apoyo y su liderazco. Estamos muy agradecidos. We are grateful for the life you lived and the fights that you fought on our behalf.