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Disaster recovery efforts boost initiative to map acequias in the state


Disaster recovery efforts boost initiative to map acequias in the state

Jun 08, 2023 | 6:45 am ET
By Megan Gleason
Disaster recovery efforts boost initiative to map acequias in the state
An irrigation channel in southern New Mexico in February 2023. Its user cleaned debris out of it that flooding had dragged down. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Hundreds of acequias, key irrigation systems that farmers and ranchers depend on to keep their crops thriving, are scattered across New Mexico. Tracking down all those systems is a difficult feat the state has been working on for years.

Last year’s massive disasters have provided a push in getting more mapping work done. With the aid of the nonprofit New Mexico Acequia Association, led by executive director Paula Garcia, the state could soon have new, updated data on acequias in different parts of the state.

“I think it’s a work in progress,” Garcia said. “It’s a really big undertaking.”

The Office of the State Engineer estimates there are around 2,000 acequias in New Mexico dating back to the Spanish colonial period centuries ago, all of them predated by Puebloan irrigation methods, spokesperson Maggie Fitzgerald said.

“There is no definitive, proven number, of active acequias in the state,” she said.

What acequias the state is aware of are shown in a map from the Office of the State Engineer, though this could miss out on more that officials don’t know about.

In the state map, about 73% of the acequia systems listed are unnamed. Fitzgerald said that’s because stewards — the people in charge of the acequias — haven’t reported the systems to the state.

Garcia said there’s a lot more work to get done on mapping and data-collecting efforts, but her association is pretty focused on disaster recovery right now.

Historic fires and flooding tore apart acequias on both ends of the state last year, flipping over headgates, cracking concrete water paths and eroding ditches. Stewards strained to find help, facing damage that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix — money not available in their small bank accounts.

The Mimbres river flows between land with trees on either side of it. In the middle of the river sits a tilted headgate with debris on it, broken and slumping into the water.
A broken headgate for an acequia sits in the Mimbres River on Dec. 15, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

The Acequia Association has been helping the disaster-ridden areas in northern and southern New Mexico. Along the way, Garcia said the team is gathering information, like names and locations of acequias, and filling holes in their last rough map.

Back in 2017, she said, the Acequia Association conducted a survey in different parts of the state to track irrigation systems. She said about 300 acequias responded — 15% of all the systems the state assumes exist — but that information is way outdated now.

“Now that we’re doing disaster work, we have a better sense of how many we actually missed,” she said.

She said her organization has figured out a better method than a survey to get information this time around — word of mouth. It works best to go village by village, she said, cultivating good relationships with stewards in order to get more data from acequias.

She said that’s how her team is going about this effort in disaster areas.

“Ask, ‘Who’s the mayordomo for this one?’” she said. “And then contact that person and build the relationship and build trust and go out and map that acequia.”

Because disaster recovery work is taking so much time, Garcia said there’s been a bit of a delay in sharing information with the state.

“When things slow down a little bit, we’ll catch up and be sharing some of the basics with them,” she said.

Garcia said the Acequia Association has mapped about 70% of the channels running through or near the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire and Black Fire burn scars, meaning they know who runs the system, where the point of diversion is, and the location and length of the ditch.

She said it’s more difficult to get information from areas that haven’t had water rights finalized in court yet and are lacking state attention. Those places can often be starting from scratch, Garcia said.

Why map the acequias?

Jonathan Martinez is the acequia bureau chief at the Interstate Stream Commission, part of the Office of the State Engineer. He said via email it’s important to track all the acequias and their data so everyone can be prepared when disasters hit.

“Having an accurate spatial accounting of acequias is especially important when natural disasters occur so that funding from state and federal sources can be distributed,” he said.

Garcia agreed. She said mapping an acequia is a documentation of its existence and the normal state of a system, pre-disaster.

“Visiting an acequia after a flood, you go out there and you might not even be able to see where the acequia used to be,” she said.

Disaster recovery efforts boost initiative to map acequias in the state
The path where water normally flows in spring (to the right of the dog) is covered in leaves and debris after the Black Fire and flooding in southern New Mexico. Pictured in December 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Plus, Garcia said, stewards can use the data themselves to do infrastructure planning. For example, she said, some stewards have already used data compiled from the mapping efforts to create five- to 10-year plans that address immediate and long-term needs.

She said some stewards are worried about the data and mapping being shared publicly. In addition to concerns about people using it to buy up water rights, she said, the association has to be careful not to tread on private property near irrigation ditches.

“It’s sensitive,” she said. “You’re passing through people’s private property, and you have to respect people’s privacy.”

Garcia said all the data the association is collecting belongs to the acequias and she asks stewards’ permission before sharing anything with state agencies. 

“We’ve tried to keep it to really official purposes for disaster work and infrastructure work,” she said.

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There’s no formal timeline for getting a comprehensive map done, she said. And once it is, keeping it updated will be a whole different challenge, she said. Garcia said the data goes out of date pretty quickly.

“I think it will be done on an as-needed basis when there’s a particular need in a particular basin,” she said.

Martinez said the mapping will take years to finish “but is important to have for our state.”

A vision for the future

Garcia said she hopes each local acequia community can do their own mapping in the years to come and use it as a tool. She said she wants to see a database stewards can tap into to add their own information and projects.

The map could go beyond just data, too, she added. She said stewards could add stories about the acequias or transform it into a hub for cultural and traditional resources, making it more personal.

“Click on a map, you’re not just getting a picture about a concrete diversion, but maybe they’re getting a story, a vignette or some kind of small video of an elder talking or telling a story about the acequia,” she said. “Or maybe a memory about place name or why the acequia’s named a certain way or who the prominent families were in that village.”

This effort could be a great opportunity to get young people involved, Garcia said, teaching them more about the irrigation channels and giving stewards a way to get a sense of how the systems are doing before irrigation season starts.

“I can imagine having youth crews go and walk the ditch every early spring, and then come back and share the data with each acequia,” she said.

Garcia said this would help build acequias’ capacity and increase place-based knowledge. And, she added, it would be a locally led, living process.

“With that foundation, we can start to develop some other more creative ideas for how to use mapping skills,” she said.

Water flows off of a concrete diversion.
A diversion on the Mimbres River in southern New Mexico in February 2023. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)