Climate change is putting New Mexico’s ancient acequias to the test
A narrow, winding ditch brings water from the Rio Grande into the orchard of Enrique Lamadrid’s north-central New Mexico property. The retired University of New Mexico professor and folklorist often marvels at the abundance of birds flitting through the trees on its shores. “We have great horned owls. We have several kinds of hawks, including little gavilanes, little kestrels, ”he says. “We have all kinds of songbirds. We have troglodytes. We have Bewick’s Wren singing a storm.
This small waterway is known as aequia, an ancient type of gravity-fed ditch found in northern New Mexico. These earthen channels carry melting snow and rain from the mountains to fields, orchards and gardens. The ribbons of emerald green vegetation that flourish in this way provide an oasis for a diversity of avian life, says Lamadrid, an avid ornithologist who has done extensive research on acequias. “We forget to give credit to the acequias, but the acequias widen and extend the riparian zone,” he says. “Where there are acequias, there are beautiful trees full of birds.
Acequias (pronounced ah-SEH-kee-ahs), has a long history of distributing water for flood irrigation dating back to the period of colonization in the 17th and 18th centuries. They have helped the people of New Mexico and other parts of the arid southwestern through times of fullness and scarcity. But the bad weather this summer dried up some acequias, raising concerns about whether these age-old symbols of resilience can continue to provide to communities as climate change causes deeper and more lasting water shortages.
The acequias come from a mixture of civilizations whose community culture still thrives in the region. Ditches have evolved over thousands of years in the Middle East. They spread to Spain during the North African Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. When the Spaniards arrived in the southwest, they used these irrigation techniques to build on similar canals that the Pueblo Indians relied on to grow corn, beans and squash.
An estimated 700 to 800 surviving New Mexico acequias pass through urban and rural communities, and their users are diverse. “Some are commercial farmers and others are lucky enough to have an acequia in their garden, but everyone benefits because they make it a very livable place,” says Lamadrid. In Santa Fe, the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Shrine draws water from the Acequia del Llano.
Old irrigation systems still operate much the same as they did centuries ago, on principles of fairness and cooperation. The word acequia, of Arabic origin, embodies not only the network of channels, but also a complex system of inherited cultural norms, shared responsibilities and democratic decision-making. “It’s a privilege to use water together,” says Lamadrid. “Aequia is about physical, spiritual and community values. “
State law recognizes acequias as political subdivisions and deals with related matters through the New Mexico Acequia Commission appointed by the governor. Acequia traditions include self-reliance practices and a distinct Spanish lexicon. Elected comisionados, or commissioners, manage the acequias. A mayordomo, or ditch manager, ensures the equitable distribution of water and the maintenance of the aequia. Women gamblers who hold water rights must help clean and repair the acequia madre each spring during the limpia, when people of all ages come together to cook, eat, and catch up with neighbors after the work is done. From this cherished main channel, water flows into the communities and is then allocated to the parciantes via smaller ditches that inundate the individual plots.
Since water from typically unlined acequias seeps through their beds, some critics consider them less effective than other crop watering methods. Drip irrigation, for example, uses flexible tubes to slowly deliver water directly to plants, keeping evaporation and runoff to a minimum. Supporters, however, present acequias as a viable alternative to deal with an increasingly hot climate. And science seems to back up these claims.
New Mexico State University studies show acequias offer multiple advantages For the environment. Not only do they enlarge and maintain riparian areas to increase bird and wildlife diversity, but infiltration of water from acequias replenishes shallow aquifers, feeding streams and rivers, says Alexander “Sam” Fernald, director of the University’s Water Resources Research Institute. Calling these irrigation systems inefficient “is to misrepresent the purpose of acequias,” he says. “Part of their function, historically and ideologically, is to maintain the balance between groundwater and surface water, so it’s actually the most efficient system to do that. “
Not only do they enlarge and maintain riparian areas to increase bird and wildlife diversity, but infiltration of water from acequias replenishes shallow aquifers.
Maintaining this balance will be especially important and difficult over the next several decades, during which scientists predict that New Mexico will get even hotter and drier. Higher temperatures earlier in the spring mean acequia users will have to adapt to the snowmelt they expect to arrive sooner, says John Fleck, director of the University of New Brunswick’s water resources program. Mexico. “If you use water downstream from a dam, where you can store spring runoff for use in the summer, you can correct that problem,” says Fleck. “But most of the acequias are not below the dams, so they are victims of this fundamental climate change.”
Still, acequias have proven to be resilient during times of severe drought and other external forces over the past 400 years, Fernald notes. The community-based nature of acequias can provide cohesion to help meet the challenges of climate change head-on, without advanced irrigation technologies or major infrastructure, he says.
The Pariantes are already adapting their approach. In the northern Albuquerque Valley, where Lamadrid lives and where acequias bring water from the Rio Grande, this summer’s drought forced the system to shut down three months earlier than usual. “Farmers put their fields to bed for the winter when they water for the last time in mid-October,” explains Lamadrid, a comisionado of the Alamos de los Gallegos Acequia association. “This year, they cut the cycles at the end of July. “
Monsoon rains provided temporary relief, allowing farmers and gardeners to water their fields and plots multiple times. “We’re still in the midst of a drought, but this year we’ve had very generous weather,” says Lamadrid, using the Spanish word for the seasonal rains that fell intermittently until September.
In East Pecos, state commission chairman Ralph Vigil is mayor of Acequia del Molino. An eighth generation farmer in the Pecos River Valley, he has started growing more drought tolerant crops which he sells to schools. He sees acequias as an integral part of the thriving habitat of birds and other creatures throughout the state: piece of wildlife in there.
Vigil and parciantes around New Mexico hope that Acequia communities will be able to adapt to a changing climate and preserve an age-old culture of water sharing based on querencia, a deep love of place that also involves the respect. “We have all been taught the querencia of ourselves, the community, the land and the place where we were raised,” says Vigil.
This legacy passed down from generation to generation, he says, can help keep acequias in a region they helped build centuries ago, and to which they still belong.