Can New Mexico’s ancient irrigation canals survive a changing climate?

For centuries, acequias have been the lifeblood of a vibrant communal culture in hamlets throughout the state. But climate change, a development boom, and mounting economic pressures have pushed these systems, and the people who depend on them, to the brink.

Water murmurs and flows through a narrow earthen canal that winds along the cottonwood-lined edge of Santa Cruz Farm. Located in the tiny burg of Santa Cruz de la Cañada in northern New Mexico, the farm produces prolifically, despite being just three and a half acres. The owner, 63-year-old Don Bustos, grows tender salad greens, spinach, chard and kale through the fall and winter beneath floating row covers and cold frames, and in greenhouses warmed by solar-heated thermal systems. In spring and summer he grows heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, berries and chili peppers that, when hung to dry, turn dark red and can be ground into molido, a rich, spicy powder that is central to the cooking of this region. “Seventy-two varieties of produce, as of my last count,” he tells me with a wide grin and a soft Hispano accent. The greens he sells to the local schools; the rest he sells through venues like the Santa Fe Farmers Market. “Twelve months a year, I grow food and make a living, powered by the sun and by water from the acequia,” he says, referring to the gravity-fed canal at the edge of his land. “It’s a good life. Not so different from when I was a kid living here. Maybe not so different from when my ancestors settled this place,” he says with a laugh.

Santa Cruz de la Cañada is home to dozens of small farms like this. Although most are not as diverse as Bustos’, nearly all sidle up to an acequia. From the Taos Valley in the north to Albuquerque and other communities farther south, there are more than 1,000 of the canals in the state irrigating some 12,000 family farms. Acequias have been crucial to life, and to a way of life, in New Mexico for centuries. But now they face a range of problems, from climate change to changing economic and cultural realities, that threaten their future and the livelihoods and traditions of the people who depend on them.

Ancient roots

The first Spanish settlers arrived in this region in the late 16th century. Led by the conquistador Don Juan De Oñate, they traveled 1,600 miles from Zacatecas in today’s Mexico, then known as New Spain, to what is now northern New Mexico. Their first settlements were on the Ohkay Owingeh pueblo, about five miles north of where Don Bustos has his farm. With them came Franciscan missionaries who attempted to convert the Native Americans to Roman Catholicism, teach them Spanish customs, and pacify resistance. With the settlers and missionaries came sheep, cattle, pigs, horses, oxen and goats, Old World fruit and vegetable seeds, tools, and agricultural practices, including an ancient irrigation method with roots in a place more distant than Spain.

Don Bustos, owner of Santa Cruz Farm in Santa Cruz de la Cañada, lifts a floating row cover to reveal tender salad greens.

For thousands of years, farmers in arid and semiarid regions of the Middle East maintained elaborate networks of gravity-fed earthen canals to provide water and food security. The management of water was one of the most significant processes developed in the region, and the knowledge spread quickly — from Persia to North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula, or present-day Andorra, Portugal, Gibraltar and Spain, where acequias still serve farmers.

Sophisticated irrigation systems weren’t new to the American southwest. Pueblo Indians built innovative water harvesting and irrigation structures long before the Spanish arrived. But the Spanish colonizers went much further, diverting the Rio Grande and other major rivers and delivering their water to new settlements via the miles-long canals they and the Indians dug by hand. They began on the Ohkay Owingeh pueblo, digging the Acequia de Chamita from the Chama River. (It’s the oldest acequia in New Mexico, and is still used by farmers today.) As the colonies multiplied, so did the acequias; each settlement required the construction of canals to deliver water to gardens, orchards and fields.

A canoa, like this one on the Las Trampas Acequia between Santa Fe and Taos, is a flume made from hand-hewn logs that carries water over an arroyo.

Today, this legacy of Spanish colonialism twists like the branches of a tree across the region. It is a legacy best viewed from the air, a serpentine network of canals that sprouts from the Rio Grande and its tributaries, sustaining a way of life that stretches back centuries.

Hotter and drier

There is a saying in New Mexico: Agua es la vida, “water is life.” You see it on murals and signs, on bumper stickers and T-shirts. Of course, water is life everywhere. But it’s an especially poignant fact in a place as dry as New Mexico, where water has always been an unpredictable resource. And today, water there is particularly precious and unpredictable. Like the rest of the Southwest, already the hottest, driest region in the country, New Mexico is getting hotter and drier. The decade from 2001-2010 was the warmest recorded in 110 years, according to the National Climate Assessment, released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program in November. During that 10-year period, temperatures were nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than historic averages. Precipitation patterns are changing, too, with more extreme droughts and a greater percentage of winter precipitation falling as rain instead of snow. And less snowfall in the winter means less alpine snowpack.

As distant as the snowcapped spine of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains may seem from the fields and orchards of Santa Cruz de la Cañada, the farmers there rely on the range’s snowpack, which they consider a sort of natural reservoir — one that collects winter’s snow and releases it as water in the spring and early summer when the snow melts. When the snowpack shrinks, the water flow in the rivers dwindles and irrigation becomes problematic.

Snowpack in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is an important source of irrigation water for the region’s farmers.

Snowmelt is the major source of water for the Rio Grande River, which irrigates thousands of acres of farmland as it wends its way from the mountains of southern Colorado, through New Mexico, and on to the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2002, a series of droughts has afflicted the river and the people living along its basin, shortening the irrigation season, reducing the amount of water allotted to farmers, and forcing municipal water managers to implement conservation plans. The most recent drought, which lasted six years, was the driest and hottest period in New Mexico in more than a century. During the drought’s peak, in 2013, the Rio Grande’s flow was at its lowest in a hundred years and the levels of its reservoirs were at an all-time low. In southern New Mexico that year, farmers who depend on water from the Elephant Butte Reservoir for the summer growing season saw their allotment drop from 36 inches per acre to just 3.5 inches. Studies predict that, due to climate change, the flows of New Mexico’s major rivers will continue to dwindle. One study estimates that the Rio Grande’s flow could shrink 14 percent by 2030, and by nearly a third by 2080.

The warmer temperatures also increase the rate at which water evaporates from rivers, lakes and reservoirs, and from soil and plants. At New Mexico State University’s Sustainable Agriculture Science Center, near the village of Alcalde, Steve Guldan and his colleagues work with small-scale farmers like Don Bustos to help them develop more profitable, sustainable farms. They also study the hydrologic effects of acequias, and their research shows that the canals may actually counter water loss due to evaporation. One study found that only 7 percent of the water diverted from the Rio Grande into an acequia irrigation system is lost to evapotranspiration from crop fields. The remaining 93 percent returns to the river: 60 percent as surface water from irrigation tailwater and 33 percent as groundwater. In contrast, when Elephant Butte Reservoir is full, it loses approximately 140,000 acre-feet of water to evaporation each year, or roughly twice the total annual water usage of the city of Albuquerque.

El Agua es la Vida signs can be seen throughout New Mexico.

“Because acequias are dug into the earth, they allow water to seep underground where it can be stored,” Guldan says. “Between seepage from the acequia and irrigation, the water table rises. Basically, acequias help to facilitate the storage of water underground during the hottest time of year — the irrigation season — and then the stored water flows to the river underground when things cool down.”

In short, for farmers and others in New Mexico and throughout the Southwest, the changing climate will increase the need for water but also will shrink the supply. It’s an ominous forecast for a state that already faces troubling rates of poverty and food insecurity. In 2015, according to the New Mexico Department of Health, 16 percent of residents were food insecure, including 25 percent of children.

Stronger together

What one can’t see from the air is the system of communal acequia governance that remains in effect today. It is this spirit of cooperation, Don Bustos hopes, that will provide New Mexico’s farmers a certain resilience in the face of climate change. In the arid West, where access to water is often contentious, water rights are based on what is called the “doctrine of prior appropriation.” The first person to take water from a source for “beneficial use” has the right to continue to use that quantity of water for that purpose. The date a water right was first established is called a “priority date.” It is this date that determines who gets water when there’s not enough to go around. During a drought, if your priority date is older than your neighbor’s, you get the little water that’s flowing down the river; your neighbor does not. But under New Mexico law, acequias are exempted from the priority system. Because in acequia communities sharing water has always been customary.

The word, “acequia,” derived from the Arabic al-sāqiya, or “to give to drink, irrigate,” has two meanings in New Mexico: the canal itself and the community that lives alongside it and maintains it. And that word, “community,” is key, according to Bustos. “We call it repartimiento de agua,” he says. “It’s the custom of sharing water, making sure its distribution is fair for everyone on the acequia.”

The Acequia del Bosque irrigates a garlic farm, apple orchards, alfalfa and corn fields, and other small farms in Dixon, New Mexico.

In exchange for the water they use, parciantes, or acequia members, must work together to maintain the canal through the year and participate in the annual spring cleanup. The canal’s mayordomo, or watermaster, is elected by the parciantes. Along with the commissioners, who also are elected, the mayordomo oversees maintenance and makes decisions about water distribution. When the acequia needs to be repaired, the community pitches in to help. If there’s a drought, the goal is to get the community, rather than just one farmer, through those thirsty times. When water is in short supply, the mayordomo will meet with the parciantes to develop a water-sharing agreement. Sometimes, the mayordomo of one acequia will meet with his or her counterparts from other acequias along a river to establish similar agreements on a larger scale. These deals often involve taking turns diverting the river’s flow from one acequia to another.

“Acequias are our country’s first form of democracy,” says Bustos. “So you have to make friends with your neighbors because one day you’ll have to work with them. You’ll have to deal with problems, with contention. And sometimes things do get a little contentious — you know, it’s water. Everyone wants their fair share.”

New threats

Bustos puts a good deal of faith in the acequias’ 400-year history of collective governance and problem solving. But today the acequia way of life faces threats that are very different from the age-old struggles with nature and neighbors. In Santa Fe, Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, a nonprofit founded in 1990 to protect acequia water rights, describes the new challenges as “complex and multifaceted.”

“In some ways, we’re facing the same problems we’ve had for centuries: the physical act of maintaining the acequias and getting people to work together, the variability of water from one year to next,” she says. But like the rest of the United States, New Mexico’s economy has changed with globalization. “The villages, the pueblos, the acequias — they’re no longer subsistence-based,” says Garcia. “And many of our neighbors are the ultra-rich. It’s expensive to live here, even if you’re desperately poor. People need two or three jobs to survive. The younger generations are drawn away, either by the need to make more money or the desire to live a different, more modern way of life. Our acequias are no longer the self-sufficient communities they once were when people relied on agriculture for their livelihood.”

That means fewer parciantes to help clean the canals each spring, and maintain them throughout the year.

As the economy has shifted, the demand for water has grown — and those doing the demanding have changed. One of the most important services Garcia’s organization offers to acequias is legal advice. “Water is scarce in New Mexico,” she says, “and the pressure to commodify it, to divert it from agricultural use and into development, poses another challenge. One our ancestors didn’t have to deal with.”

On an acequia, water rights are attached to the land and are transferable. So if a parciante decides to sell his land, his water rights go to the new owner. This has led to the fragmentation of some acequia communities, as properties are sold to people who have little interest in using or maintaining the canals. Whether it’s due to the skyrocketing value of rural land near communities like Santa Fe or Taos, or to a developer who wants as much water as he can get for a subdivision or golf course, acequias are under a lot of pressure. Water, says Garcia, increasingly flows “to the richest, most powerful people.”

Jujube trees are one of the experimental crops at New Mexico State University’s Sustainable Agriculture Science Center that are economically viable and can adapt to the changing climate.

In 2003, New Mexico passed legislation that gives acequias, rather than the state, the authority to decide whether water rights can be transferred from a canal. If a developer wants to build a subdivision, he must have water rights to get the project approved. If he tries to buy those rights from an acequia, he must make his case to the commissioners, who’ve been elected by the parciantes. “It’s up to the commissioners, with advice from the parciantes, to say yes or no,” Garcia explains. “It’s a democratic process and it happens right before your eyes.”

The acequias often deny a transfer request if they think it will be detrimental to the canal or its members. Transfers have been denied, for example, because the permanent loss of the water rights would mean less participation during canal cleaning, less revenue received from dues, and less head, or water pressure, which may affect irrigators at the end of the acequia. Requests also have been denied simply because permanent transfers off the acequia may negatively affect the tradition and culture.

On the other hand, acequias have allowed transfers that are predicated on continued participation in the maintenance of the canal, say, or because they’re deemed good for a community. When two brothers wanted to start a winery in Dixon, New Mexico, for instance, they asked a local acequia to transfer water to the vineyards. Because the water use was agricultural, and because the commissioners agreed the winery would stimulate the local economy, they approved the transfer.

But Enrique Romero, the staff attorney for the New Mexico Acequia Association, says the 2003 legislation wasn’t a silver bullet. “There are some caveats to the law,” he says. “For instance, the acequias have to adopt bylaws in order to have that decision-making authority.” Without those bylaws, developers and other applicants can go directly to the state to get the water transfer approved. Applicants, he says, are “constantly trying to find creative ways to circumvent the acequias’ rights. Acequias need to be organized. They have to be proactive. We try to help them do that.”

And the problem of climate change is making these new threats even more difficult to deal with. It increases the demand for water from developers, municipalities, and others beyond the acequias, but it also makes farming — a difficult job in the best of circumstances — even harder. And, Romero fears, less appealing as a way of life. “If this ends up discouraging farmers, you’ll see more fallow land,” he says. “It’s already hard enough to be a farmer. If they don’t have plans in place to deal with climate change, they’ll start looking to give up the farm and the acequia.”

That’s why Don Bustos works so hard to demonstrate that small-scale farming can be viable, and to share his knowledge with fellow farmers. He experiments with Guldan at the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center on new crops and techniques for improving year-round production. He initiated a regional consumer-supported agriculture program, which allows consumers to buy directly from farmers. He successfully advocated for the Santa Fe Farmers Market to become a year-round affair. And he started the Farmer-to-Farmer program to teach both young and established farmers how to farm more sustainably and profitably.

Steve Guldan, who runs New Mexico State University’s Sustainable Agriculture Science Center, helps farmers like Don Bustos adapt to climate change.

His efforts, and the efforts of others, are paying off. “When I first started selling at the farmers’ market in Santa Fe, there were five or six of us,” Bustos says. “Now there’s a reserve line, seniority, bickering over spaces — all indicators of a healthy system that’s growing.” And in his community, the Santa Cruz Acequia, the number of farmers has grown over the last decade, including some operations that are much larger than his. “Now I have to share the water,” he says with a laugh.

But climate change is the threat that none of them can ignore. “It’s so important for us to be resilient,” Bustos says. “If the predictions come true, this valley is going to look like Tucson. How will that affect our food chain? How will it affect how we make our livelihood? How will that affect our culture and our customs?” These are huge questions, Bustos says, and acequias run through the heart of all of them. “Questions we have to address today so the acequias can continue to run.”

Lead image: Chili peppers, raised with water from acequias, for sale at the Santa Fe, New Mexico, farmers’ market.

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