Acequia leaders call for respect, cooperation in year of drought


Sam DesGeorges irrigates his land from an acequia that's fed by the Rio Fernando in Taos Canyon. Most days, he gets online to check the latest measurement of the snowpack in the mountains. But anymore, those numbers are telling a bleak story.

"It's going to be a tough season ahead," he said. "It's no good. Sorry about that."

Although most acequias haven't yet held their spring cleaning, the reality of the drought was already palpable for DesGorges and other ditch parciantes at the annual meeting of the Taos Valley Acequia Association Saturday (March 3).

According to the most recent report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, Taos County is among the driest areas of New Mexico so far this year.

With all this in mind, the leaders of the local acequia association urged the room of baseball cap- and canvas vest-wearing irrigators from throughout the Taos Valley to work together in the months ahead.

"Putting aside our difference is going to keep us, keep the acequia community, alive," said Patricia Quintana, vice president of the Taos Valley Acequia Association, the first regional acequia association in New Mexico that was founded in 1987.

"What did our ancestors do in these times?" asked Paula Garcia, president of the New Mexico Acequia Association, a Mora County commissioner and a candidate for a state house seat. "They figured out how to share water."

No state government or outsider can force acequias to share water, she said. "Working together has to come from you, your heart, your faith," Garcia said, urging parciantes to really investigate their "sharing traditions" and put them into practice.

But sharing water can be a tall proposition. Even with priority dates for using the resource - and the legal ability to call for water before neighbors - the politics of fairly distributing whatever water flows from the mountains is a lot more complicated on the ground.

As Andrew Vigil, a commissioner on the San Francisco de Padua acequia off of the Rio Pueblo, said to the gathering of ditch leaders, "When you're at the bottom of the line, you get what's left."

To that end, the association has hosted five stream-wide meetings, or visitas, to promote cooperation among acequias that pull water off of the ríos in the valley. A final visita, this one for the Rio Hondo ditches, is planned for the spring although no date has been set.

But cooperation, they said, will be important beyond the acute pains of individual drought years and into a "post-Abeyta future," referring to the massive federal court settlement that's meant to put to bed longstanding water rights disputes in the Taos Valley.

Kyle Harwood, a Santa Fe-based attorney contracting with the acequia association, told the board members, commissioners and mayordomos that new scientific information about the underground geology in parts of Taos County is being integrated into the models used in the settlement.

The new information came from an August 2016 report prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey that revealed "the geologic structures underground are much more complex than originally thought."

He said there could be "unintended consequences" of not resolving the settlement's water model with that used by the Office of the State Engineer.

Bill Woodall, a parciante on an acequia in Arroyo Seco, said he'd like to see more venues for public education around the Abeyta settlement "before we turn the lawyers loose," imploring the acequia association to take the lead in those meetings.

As part of the routine business of the annual meeting, a new board was elected. All board members had to sign a confidentiality and conflict-of-interest agreement. "This is critical," said vice president Quintana. "If anyone has an issue signing it, you might want to rethink being on the board."