Climate and culture change threaten New Mexico’s ancient irrigation canals

For hundreds of years, a network of earthen canals that ribbon through New Mexico have been central to a thriving small-farm scene and a communal way of life. But those canals, called acequias, and the way of life they support, are being pushed to the brink by a changing climate, a development boom, and the imperatives of the modern economy, says Alexis Adams in FERN’s latest story, published with The Weather Channel.

“[F]or 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,” writes Adams. “It’s an ominous forecast for a state that already faces troubling rates of poverty and food insecurity.”

Studies have shown that acequias can help preserve water. “Because acequias are dug into the earth, they allow water to seep underground, where it can be stored,” says Steve Guldan, who runs New Mexico State University’s Sustainable Agriculture Science Center. “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.”

Beyond the physical benefits of the canals, they are the basis for a communal culture that is rare in our individualized world. Everyone who lives along an acequia is responsible for its upkeep. “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,” writes Adams. “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.”

As Don Bustos, a farmer in northern New Mexico, put it: “Acequias are our country’s first form of democracy. 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.”