Acequias celebrate history and prepare for the future

By Paula Garcia
Posted 11/14/19

New Mexico's acequias are celebrating a major milestone: the 30th anniversary of the New Mexico Acequia Association.

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Acequias celebrate history and prepare for the future

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New Mexico's acequias are celebrating a major milestone: the 30th anniversary of the New Mexico Acequia Association.

Grassroots action to defend land and water rights is deeply rooted in the acequia communities of New Mexico as evidenced by activism and legal battles over land and water rights since the 19th century. The acequia movement is the period that coincides with social justice movements in New Mexico, roughly beginning in the 1970s. This is an era of acequia history characterized by community organizing and political mobilization.

The NMAA was founded in 1989 at a time when acequia leaders saw the need to advocate for their future survival in the face of challenges such as water transfers and water markets, viability of small-scale farming and ranching and fragmentation of families from their land-based heritage.

By the early 2000s, the NMAA had worked with regional acequia associations (organized in their respective watersheds) to establish the Congreso de las Acequias, a federation of regional delegations of acequias. The Taos Valley Acequia Association was the first to join the Congreso and helped shape the next two decades of water advocacy.

The first two decades of the 21st century have seen an acequia renaissance with hundreds of acequias revitalizing through updated bylaws, refurbished infrastructure, youth education, farmer training and a cultural longing to return to the land. During this period, acequias have also mobilized politically to change laws at the state and federal level that recognize the importance of acequias.

Laws enacted at the state level authorized acequias to have water management powers, including power over water transfers and water banking, giving acequias tools for greater self-determination. These new powers have been the basis of the Acequia Governance Project. Other efforts have focused on youth education and farmer training, culminating in the Sembrando Semillas and Los Sembradores programs.

During this same period, acequia leadership has sought to address major challenges such as drought and climate change - culminating in a drought summit and conference on climate change in recent years. The consensus among acequia leaders in response to water scarcity is to reaffirm ancient customs and traditions of water sharing and to embrace adaptations such as seed saving for drought-resistant crops. This will continue to be an ongoing concern while acequias also consider what infrastructure improvements are needed for both scarcity and flooding from extreme weather events.

The Congreso de las Acequias held Nov. 2 honored history and mentors who have cultivated a new generation of acequia leaders. Longtime acequia leaders will provide a retrospective and the younger generation will offer a perspective on the future. Youth, young farmers and acequia advocates who have been nurtured as part of the acequia movement will offer a vision for the future.

Paula Garcia is executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association.

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