Walking the ditch in Las Trampas

Irrigation season keeps a community in the rhythm of remembering

By Cody Hooks
Posted 4/23/19

A few miles from the highway that runs down the middle of the village of Las Trampas, near the place were Taos and Río Arriba counties meet, the end of Ditch No. …

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Walking the ditch in Las Trampas

Irrigation season keeps a community in the rhythm of remembering


A few miles from the highway that runs down the middle of the village of Las Trampas, near the place were Taos and Río Arriba counties meet, the end of Ditch No. 1 empties back into the río out of a cut-in-half metal culvert. The river passes little five-acre farms and a stone memorial to a 19th-century priest from Chimayó before meandering through a hilly field, green in spring.

In the back pocket of the community, about an hour after sunrise, the clinks and pings of shovels start to fill the valley as folks snake their way backward along the irrigation ditch, from the terminus up toward the road and the headgate.

Saturday (April 13) brought the annual limpia, the acequia cleaning, to Las Trampas.

The acequias -- the centuries-old, hand-dug ditches that move water through the veins of communities like this -- set Northern New Mexico apart from the rest of the region. Yet each one is unique. Each one faces its own challenges when it comes to upkeep, drought and development. And each ditch harnesses its own strengths.

The Las Trampas ditch isn't beholden by an interstate compact, like in Costilla, nor, like dozens of ditches in the Taos Valley, is it tied up in water rights battles.

But just driving down State Road 76 between Peñasco and Truchas reveals one of its singular features -- the wooden canoas, or flumes. The hollowed-out logs are set on top of wooden pylons to link the acequia on either side of a steep and narrow valley at the north end of the community. A metal culvert would do the job, but since people are able and willing, they replace the logs every decade or so.

The wooden infrastructure alone is enough to notice, but follow the ditch back, and the limpia helps tells the story of a community far removed from the attention of most bigger communities in Northern New Mexico.

Ditch No. 1 hugs the north side of the valley and runs parallel to the river. Only two dozen irrigators, or parciantes, use water from the acequia, so a typical cleaning is done with a small band of locals, maybe 20 people. That day, with storm clouds churning over Jicarita Peak and up to a foot of snow predicted -- it wasn't a good prediction, it turned out -- only 12 showed up.

Each family on the acequia is meant to do the cleaning, or send a worker. Elsewhere in Taos County, the dearth of laborers come cleaning day has become a common story. But not in Las Trampas.

"This is kind of a unique problem for us," said Emilio Martinez, the treasurer of the ditch association.

"This is the first time it ever happened. I think maybe they anticipated we wouldn't do it because of the snow," he said. Indeed, a few other acequia cleanings in the Peñasco Valley that day were canceled because of the snow.

"We'll have to figure it out," Martinez said.

But he didn't seem worried about it.

Almost every parciante had already cut the willows and moved fallen limbs out of the main course of the acequia, so the crew moved at a fast clip, using shovels to straighten the inside walls of the ditch and bending to pick up the bigger rocks that had flowed down the previous season.

Martinez married into a family from the valley back in 1984 and has been involved with the ditch "in some capacity since then, either just a user of water or been involved in the commission mostly."

The biggest problem he sees is the summer storms, that clog the culverts with rocks and gunk and sometimes demand a midseason cleaning.

"The people here are just fantastic. I mean they pay their dues and they look forward to getting water into their ditch. They know these ditches are the lifeblood of the community in the sense that this gives us water to irrigate our fields, and maintain our culture, really," he said.

Without the water, and without the yearly rhythm of growing and harvesting that the water cultivates, the nuts and bolts of that "old way" would be lost.

"Years past, this was livelihood, to irrigate your fields, irrigate your corn, your peas. That meant food on the table," Martinez said.

"My wife and I were just talking yesterday about peas. We remember when we were kids, we would go into the pea field and pick tubs full, big tubs full of peas - huge - they'd open up the pea pods to can them and all that stuff.

"That was the old days. Now we just kind of go down there and munch on them and the grandkids pick them and all that. It's no longer the 'You must have these things because you need them for the winter.' But we must have them now to remember our culture, the way it used to be," he said.

Martinez walked down to the end of the ditch as Doug North, the mayordomo, pulled out a pocket watch to check the time.

When he was in the army, North would use his time off to visit the little valleys around Las Trampas. Mostly, he said, he was trying to get his head on straight.

"It's a place of healing. I don't want to be mystical, but some of us have a geographic center.

This is mine," North said.

By about 10 in the morning, the crew stops outside North's property. His wife set out an ice chest with apples, bottled water and few bags of candy, Tootsie Rolls and Lifesavers.

North, who'll be 70 this year, takes the few minutes to check on his chickens and ducks, and to ponder how the cycle of the ditch will keep going with so few young people in the valley and so few trying to make their living off the land.

"This is a history lesson you hope don't disappear," he said. "Who takes over next?"

Besides finding some calm in the mountains a couple decades ago, North also found a family, marrying a woman from the valley and getting a stepson, Jeramiah Martinez, in the process.

Martinez, 28 years old, also has a family -- a wife and two little girls -- and a few acres along the ditch where he grows a small garden. It's just enough, he said, "basically to feed myself and my family."

He works in Santa Fe as a parts technician. It's a 54-mile drive each way.

The commute is long, but it's worth it, he said. "Just love being out here, just love Las Trampas."

As for the water, "It's a necessity, man," he said. "It gives us the liquid of life."

All morning, he's been directing the crew, counting off one through 12 so they know how much of the ditch to clean before Martinez hollers out "vuelta," meaning it's time for them to move along.

"I think eventually I'll be the one taking over, to be legit running it without Doug. It's a given -- you're raised here, you're born here, eventually you've got to step up to the plate and do something for the community."

Soon enough, it was time to get back to work cleaning the ditch.

"I've seen my grandma get up faster than that," joked one of the guys.

They kept making their way down the acequia, where gnarled juniper trees are big thanks to their real estate on the water. A few alfalfa plants are starting to green up on the banks of the ditch, though brown, dried leaves still cling to the scrub oak. It's a season of transition.

By the afternoon, around 4 p.m. or so, the crew was mostly done with the cleaning. North opened the headgate, and chased the water back down to the end of the ditch at the end of the valley.


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