New Mexico water agencies are slowly piecing together a regulatory puzzle in order to store Rio Grande water in Abiquiú Reservoir for middle valley irrigation this summer as El Vado Dam is repaired. But an objection from Texas water managers could interfere with the reservoir’s use for non-pueblo irrigators. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the northern New Mexico reservoir on the Rio Chama. Nabil Shafike, the Army Corps Albuquerque District’s water management chief, said Abiquiu was once authorized only to store Colorado River Basin water that is diverted into the Rio Grande Basin with a series of tunnels and dams for the San Juan-Chama Project.
“All the Corps reservoirs – Abiquiú, Cochiti, Galisteo and Jemez Canyon – work as one unit to protect the middle valley from flood,” Shafike said. “Any storing of native (Rio Grande) water would require a deviation from the current operation.”
The agency is weighing two potential changes at Abiquiu:
• A request from the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission to store up to 45,000 acre-feet, or 14.6 billion gallons, of Rio Grande water in Abiquiú each year for release later in the season to meet middle Rio Grande irrigation demand.
• A request from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to store up to 20,000 acre-feet, or 6.5 billion gallons, of Rio Grande water in Abiquiú each year to meet direct flow right for the six middle Rio Grande pueblos of Isleta, Sandia, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Santo Domingo and Cochiti.
The Army Corps could approve both storage plans or may choose only one.
Members of the Rio de Chama Acequia Association (RCAA) are adamant about continuing the repartimento – the traditional way of sharing water in New Mexico. They want their acequia parciantes to be treated like all the other contractors in the San Juan-Chama River Project and they want to be able to store water in Abiquiu Lake.
The Los Alamos Reporter recently sat down with the officers of the association to discuss the issues they are facing and the solutions they propose. RCAA chair Darel Madrid explained how in the 1960s, water was diverted from the Little Navajo river in Colorado to build up water in the Rio Grande through the San Juan-Chama River Project. He said most of that water streamed through a tunnel under the mountains and into Heron Reservoir.
“Ours is the only river system in the area that has foreign water running through it. Our water rights are tied to the native water rights of the Rio Chama basin. With climate change, we’re getting less and less snowpack. We’re getting warmer springs and all the melt-off is running through our acequia system before we are ready to use it,” Madrid said. “In our climate down here, the growing season usually starts the latter part of May or in June and continues into October. This water is melting off earlier and it’s passing through our system in March and early April. It leaves us in a bind.”
Madrid explained that because the RCAA water rights are tied to the Rio Chama water, only a sliver of the water that you see running through their system is actually their water.
“When people see all this water flowing through the system, they don’t realize that only a portion of that water is our water. We have approximately 22 acequias from below the dam that run from the Trujillo-Abeyta ditch, which is the northern-most, to the Salazar Ditch, which is the last one to receive water,” he said.
The foreign water that’s running through the system is owned mostly by contractors of the original San Juan–Chama River Project including the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District which takes care of everybody from Cochiti all the way down to Socorro, and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. There are also minor contractors like the County of Los Alamos, the City of Espanola, the Village of Taos, and the City of Santa Fe – all of whom bought into the project in the 60s…
For many years there was less of a drought situation in the region so there was plenty of water for everybody, he said…
“When the Rio Grande Compact was established in the late 20s or 30s, none of the RCAA acequias were invited to the table. They didn’t have a voice in those discussions at all. The parciantes were busy being farmers and were not organized. The same thing happened during the San Juan-Chama River Project. For all that we can tell, we weren’t invited to the table and all these decisions were made without our participation. When all was said and done we were left with all these rules and regulations that we have to abide by so it’s almost like taxation without representation,” Madrid said.
He noted that regulations for the acequias are all set through court orders with the State Engineer’s Office having the most authority…
The 22 RCAA ditches have the oldest priority dates for rights to the water with some of them going back to the 1600s. Madrid believes those are probably the oldest water rights in the entire nation, second only to Native Americans. The ditch behind his home has been in continual use for more than 400 years. Families of others on the board have been irrigating for hundreds of years in the area.
RCAA Treasurer Carlos Salazar said RCAA wants to find a way to store its water so that it doesn’t have to buy water and believes this would require federal legislation because the dams were constructed with federal funds. The Association hopes that the congressional delegation will help them to find a way to store their native water because it comes from their ancestral lands. Because the water can’t be stored, half of any water that flows past the Otowi Bridge near the Pueblo of San Ildefonso in the spring goes to Texas.
All the RCAA acequias are metered by the state engineer. Their diversion is measured, but one of the big debates RCAA has with the state engineer is that not all of it is consumed and the state charges them for all of the diversion and doesn’t credit them for any return flow. Another burden the RCAA has to bear is that its member acequias are saddled with all the costs for the operation and maintenance…
The RCAA believes all diversion levels should be increased by 30 percent but they would need to invest in return flow measurement to accomplish that and it would take $1,000 per ditch, a total of about $54,000 to accomplish that.
Seaman noted that the RCAA is simply trying to continue the tradition of the acequias.
“To me, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed every citizen all these rights and we don’t see it happening now with this adjudication of water to the Rio Grande and the City of Albuquerque and our neighbors there on Heron Reservoir. All that imported water – where were the acequias?” Salazar said. “I think we should be treated fairly. Our rights pre-date all of them and we should be given an opportunity to store water even if we have to pay for the storage.”
Once an acequia commissioner and now a U.S. congresswoman, Leger Fernández knows how hard it is to tell farmers they won’t get all the water they need — or maybe none at all.
She talks about the annual limpia, or cleaning of acequias in preparation for planting season.
“There was always a sense of accomplishment but now what we’re witnessing is we can’t do it all the time anymore because we don’t have the water,” she said during a tour with acequia officials. “And what you all are facing is not of your making, right? But you are having to work through the struggle of making whatever water is available work for everybody in the community.”
Some earthen canals didn’t get a drop of water this year, another example of parched Western conditions. Like many parts of the world, the region has become warmer and drier over the last 30 years, mainly due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases resulting from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas development and transportation.
Boat docks are high and dry at reservoirs around New Mexico, and Lake Powell along the Utah-Arizona line has hit a record low this year. A key Northern California reservoir that helps water a quarter of U.S. crops is shrinking.
For mayordomos — those who oversee acequias and ensure equitable water distribution — it has become a scramble.
Less snow falls, and warmer temperatures melt it sooner. Dry soil soaks up runoff before it reaches streams and rivers that feed acequias.
Paula Garcia, New Mexico Acequia Association executive director, shuns the phrase “new normal” because she said that implies stability in weather patterns the community’s ditches rely on…
Federal water management policies have complicated matters as needs of cities and other users overshadow these Hispanic and Indigenous communities.
Their traditions are rooted in Moorish ingenuity first brought to Europe and then to North America via Spanish settlers. Those water-sharing ideas were blended with already sophisticated irrigation culture developed by Indigenous communities in what is now the southwestern U.S.
What developed were little slices of paradise, with gardens and orchards that have sustained communities for generations.
Roughly 640 New Mexico acequias still provide water to thousands of acres of farmland.
Darel Madrid, Rio Chama Acequia Association president, didn’t grow a garden this year. He wanted to lead by example…
After back-to-back record dry summer rainy seasons, some Southwest areas enjoyed above average rain this year. But maps are still bleak, with nearly 99% of the West dealing with some form of drought…
When water-sharing compacts involving some of New Mexico’s largest cities were first negotiated decades ago, Madrid said communities along Rio Chama were left out. Now, as supplies are scarce, acequias around Abiquiu have been forced to seek state funding to buy water from downstream users. If none is available, they go without.
As long as Rio Chama flows above 140 cubic feet per second, water can be diverted by acequias. The flow usually nosedives in May, and rationing starts when it drops below 50 cfs. Aside from isolated spikes from storm runoff, the flow is now less than half that.
Madrid said acequias would benefit from permanent water storage in an upstream reservoir, which would need federal approval…
Part of that means reimagining acequias without giving up the sense of community they command.
At Santa Cruz Farm, owner Don Bustos is growing crops in greenhouses in fall and winter when less water is needed and evaporation is reduced, he said.
In Taos, acequia leaders have bumped up annual cleaning to the fall so they don’t miss out on early runoff…
Acequias have overcome periodic environmental crises, rivalries among water users and profound historical changes, Spanish historian and anthropologist Luis Pablo Martínez Sanmartín noted in a 2020 research report. He said survival has hinged on a common-good design based on cooperation, respect, equity, transparency and negotiation.