Maintaining Traditional Acequia Systems in a World of Technological Fixes

Commentary By KAY MATTHEWS

Back in 2012 when La Jicarita first went online I wrote an essay called “The Political Economy of Acequias: From Democratic Communalism to Business as Usual?” In it I lamented the “internecine bickering and demographic changes” within the communities of el norte that were elevating the concept of “efficiency” over that of traditional management: “Ditch banks are cleared of all vegetation and more and bigger culverts carry the water more ‘efficiently’ despite the loss of riparian habitat and groundwater recharge. Ditch fees rise every year due to increased payments for cleaning, maintenance, and improvements that are decided and implemented by the commissioners, often without the approval or oversight of the rest of the parciantes.”

Several acequia projects that are currently being contested by their parciantes are indicative of this situation. In July of this year I wrote about the controversy surrounding the transfer of acequia water rights from Questa to the Taos Valley under the auspices of the Abeyta Settlement. One hundred acre feet of water from the Llano Community Ditch in Questa will be transferred to two Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells that will augment the Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y Arroyo Seco’s irrigation. The water will be diverted from the Rio Lucero in the winter, stored in ARS wells until spring, then pumped from the wells and transported via pipeline to the acequia. The parciantes on the receiving end of the transfer, which has been approved by the Office of the State Engineer, have declared that the water transfer is unnecessary, an abrogation of another community’s water, a financial burden on the acequia, and a scheme that was never endorsed by the members of the acequia.

Acequia Madre Mayordomo Arnold Quintana and Commissioner Chris Pieper at the Rio Lucero Ditch
Acequia Madre Mayordomo Arnold Quintana and Commissioner Chris Pieper at the Rio Lucero Ditch

The other contested situation involves the community of Llano, near Peñasco, where a former commissioner of the Acequia del Llano de San Juan Nepomuceno has promulgated a $2.5 million dollar pipeline project on the upper feeder section of the ditch called the Acequia Madre Cañon. A draft environmental assessment has been developed by the Army Corps of Engineers, and funding through the Interstate Stream Commission (17.5 percent of the project) and Army Corps of Engineers (75 percent) has been generated, with an acequia commitment of 7.5 percent. Approximately 220 parciantes on the ditch would share this debt. Parciantes have objected to the project as a “boondoggle” and “overkill”, suggesting that a much less costly project could help maintain the earthen ditch rather than replacing it with a pipe three quarters of a mile long.

The Acequia Madre Cañon
The Acequia Madre Cañon

Unfortunately, both of these controversial projects illustrate that the accumulation of power into the hands of a few disenfranchises the rest of the community. Whether this accumulation is due to internecine quarrels that discourage acequia participation or due to the changing demographics of the community—an older generation of parciantes, the migration of the next generation to the cities, second home owners—it diminishes their democratic nature. In the case of the Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y del Arroyo Seco, the president of the board of the Taos Valley Acequia Association, Palemon Martinez, negotiated the concept of the ASR wells behind closed doors as a party to the Abeyta Settlement. As both president of the TVAA and a commissioner on the Acequia Madre he was able to sign off on the settlement without the knowledge and/or approval of the parciantes on the acequia.

In the case of the Llano de San Juan acequia, a previous commission, led by Bonafacio Vasquez, first began pursuing funding for repair of the Acequia Madre Cañon in the mid 2000s. According to several parciantes La Jicarita spoke with, Jean Nichols, Tanya Leherissey (mayordoma of one section of the San Juan acequia), and Pablo Tafoya (mayordomo of the other section), the original proposal that was voted on by the parciantes back in 2009 called for a short section of replacement cement pipe in an area of the ditch that needed shoring up. As the years dragged on and Vasquez continued to pursue funding, the proposed project became much larger and more costly and according to these same parciantes, little information trickled down. Tafoya told La Jicarita that anytime a change was made in the scope of the project it was the duty of the commission to inform the parciantes and obtain approval (Vasquez was a commissioner until October of 2015). The parciantes claim that Vasquez exaggerated the need for extensive repairs in his reports to the Corps that the rest of the community never saw. They stressed that previous maintenance work with a track-a-hoe had adequately addressed any problems on the Acequia Madre Cañon.

Vasquez was present at many of the meetings in the Peñasco area that were held in 2009 to object to the position of the Untied States Forest Service that acequias must obtain a special use permit to conduct rehabilitation projects that lie within the boundaries of the national forest. He acceded to the USFS demands and obtained a special use permit to avoid losing the acequia’s funding, which he claimed was vulnerable to any delay. Unfortunately, Vasquez is now in the position of commandeering a project whose legitimacy many of his fellow parciantes are questioning.

The Army Corps of Engineers issued a draft environmental assessment in late 2015 and many parciantes submitted comments questioning the project. Before a final EA was released, however, some of the property owners whose lands the pipeline will cross (none of whom are parciantes on the acequia) objected to the project and several hired an attorney to represent their concerns. They don’t want to see the acequia habitat negatively impacted or want a construction and maintenance road bulldozed through their property. There was also contention over how wide the acequia easement is for maintenance, which was raised at a recent acequia meeting where parciantes came prepared with proxies to vote up or down on the project. Representatives of the Corps told the parciantes that it was their responsibility to resolve the easement issues and that the project would be tabled in the meantime. When I called Patty Phillips, the Army Corps of Engineers project director, she told me that the acequia documents submitted by Vasquez, which stipulate a 36 foot maintenance easement, were approved by Taos District Attorney Donald Gallegos and that the final EA would be released within two weeks.

There are other unresolved issues that pertain to these kinds of improvement projects. What are the safety and maintenance regulations surrounding pipelines or ASR wells? Who will conduct the maintenance and what is the overall cost? What are the consequences of defaulting on the loans—loss of water rights? How will the acequias assign the individual costs to each parciante—by individual or by water right?

In March of 2004 La Jicarita News reported on New Mexico State University’s Sustainable Agriculture Science Center’s project to document the relationship of acequia water to groundwater recharge and the rate of return of acequia water to its parent river. The research, conducted by Sam Fernald, estimates that the rate of return is close to 50 percent, which is the credit the Office of the State Engineer allows, and that acequias raise the level of the groundwater table, create riparian environments, and remediate groundwater as well. It is vital that we maintain our traditional acequia systems that keep farmland in agricultural production and improve both water quality and quantity through aquifer recharge. Technologies that are intended to conserve water don’t address the fact that there’s a key connection between surface and groundwater supplies.

When acequia commissions apply for funding for maintenance and rehabilitation projects through the ISC or the Army Corps of Engineers they become beholden to bureaucratic requirements. While some of these projects are vitally necessary for the integrity of the acequia, too many others burden the acequia with debt, create dry zones in former wetlands, increase maintenance requirements, compromise safety, and perhaps eventuate a reduction in water rights as conserved water becomes easier to transfer. Efficiency becomes loss.

A petition is circulating among the Acequia del Llano de San Juan Nepomuceno parciantes that demands any action on the pipe project be halted until a meeting is held to “vote on the Acequia Madre Cañon concerns.”









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