Mayordoma works hard to go unnoticed

  • WATER WOMAN: Marie Coburn unclogs a ditch intake

    Michael P. Berman photo
  • Marie Coburn on patrol

    Bruce Selcraig photo

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

DIXON, N.M. - On a thunderous afternoon in this unusually wet New Mexico summer, likely the world's only flaming red-headed, Sicilian-Danish acequia mayordoma (that's long for ditch boss) is quite literally in over her head.

"This ... eeeeyunk!... is the ... augghgh! ... hard part," grunts Marie Coburn, as she goes upside-down into the rushing Rio Embudo to remove a gangly cottonwood branch. Her hiking boots and khaki pants are soaked. Rivulets of sweat ski off her freckled nose.

For roughly $200 every two weeks, Coburn has the unenviable task of making sure that all 98 farmers on her ditch get the water they are entitled to. She is thrilled the Rio Embudo is fat these days, because that means her acequia and eight other historic irrigation ditches, in and around the village of Dixon, should be flowing nicely, making farmers, including her parciantes, happy.

But with a full river comes a flotilla of discarded junk, from cantaloupes to condoms, that can clog the 250-year-old Acequia del Llano. "I found four or five dead skunks once," Coburn says as she fishes out an empty 12-pack carton of Bud Light. "Don't know for sure who did it, but I have an idea."

There was a time when Coburn wouldn't have had a clue. A former house painter and cabaret singer from Oakland, Coburn came to Dixon about 12 years ago with no experience with New Mexico's land, water or rural farm feuds.

After renting for a while, she restored a roomy old adobe house on three acres in the heart of Dixon, which is about 20 miles south of Taos, and started growing glove amaranth, zinnia, cockscomb, yarrow and other flowers. Out of these, she makes both traditional and whimsical dried-floral arrangements that she sells at the Santa Fe Farmer's Market.

None of this qualified her to run an acequia, but when she showed a willingness to learn about the acequia culture and to work hard on the ditch's annual spring cleaning and repair, her fellow parciantes saw her potential.

Well, that's the tourist version. "I'm the mayordoma," Coburn laughs, "because I said I'd do it."

Today, Coburn knows her acequia like an extended family. "Let's see, there's Blanco, Ortega, Archuleta, Arellano, Salazar, Atencio, Zamora, Valdez, Romero, Ortiz ... I've got two men who raise alfalfa, some gardeners, a man with an apple orchard who sells in Texas, a winery ... and, of course, there's Modesto Blanco. He's a sweet older man who is very proud of his peas. He'll go to the lumberyard every Friday and sell his peas."

Coburn agrees it might seem odd that her neighbors, some of whom are fifth- and sixth-generation New Mexicans, would entrust the ditch's management to a gringa newcomer. "But I think it's because I don't know about all the old family wars and feuds," she says. "I just get the water to people. I don't worry about what somebody's grandfather said to mine 60 years ago."

More respect than a man

Cruising about in her weathered Toyota truck, loyal canines Peach and Cheyenne bouncing in the back, Coburn is a fixture in the community. She is entitled by law to go anywhere the ditch does, and spends several afternoons a week darting on and off State Highway 75 checking drains and culverts.

As the ditch meanders north under the highway, Coburn heads down a dirt road into the rutted backyard driveway of a family that has a small orchard and raises sheep. The dogs skitter out the bed of the truck and follow us through head-high weeds and chamisa. Suddenly we are standing upon the Acequia del Llano, some three feet wide and one foot deep, dug by Spanish settlers (and probably Indian slave labor) over two centuries ago.

Stopping at a culvert, Coburn reaches into the weeds and pulls out an eight-foot-long cottonwood branch. She lowers the branch into the water and uses it like a dipstick to measure the water level. When she pulls it out, she can see that her brush clearing earlier at the Embudo headgate has the water level back to perfect. Coburn is highly pleased. Her parciantes will get all the water they need and still return plenty to the river.

Much like an umpire, if Coburn does her job perfectly, hardly anyone notices, but if she screws up even slightly, the whole town seems to know. There is no complicated metering system or acre-feet calculation. Each parciante gets some percentage of a pion - the amount of water needed to irrigate one's land for one day. Thus, a landowner might be referred to as a half-pion or two-pion parciante. It works on the honor system and the nosiness of neighbors.

Once, during heavy rains, Coburn made a half-dozen trips in 36 hours to the Embudo dam just to clear out debris from the acequia headgate.

"I think she does a good job," says Glen Martinez, who grows gourds and vegetables at the bottom of Coburn's ditch. "There's a lot of jealousy and crybabies on a ditch, but she's easy to work with. They respect a lady more than a man."

This summer, everyone got the water they needed. But in dry years, like 1995, water rationing meant some users at the bottom of the acequia, regardless of the seniority of their water rights, didn't get their full share.

"Back in "95 was the first week of my first year and I didn't know anybody," Coburn sighs. "I'd have to go to people and say, "I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that you will get water. The bad news is that you can only use the water between 2 and 2:45 in the morning." People would be calling me, saying, "It's my time! It's my time! And there's no water!" It literally took eight hours for the water to get from the headgate to the last guy on the ditch."

It's not a perfect system by any means, but it is one that has endured despite wars, modern plumbing, local indifference, the automobile, urban yuppie infestation, droughts and central pivot irrigation. And, of course, with the care of a few good mayordomos.

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