Acequia culture feels under the gun

  • Acequia Association founder Nicasio Romero

    Greg Hanscom photo

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

Nicasio Romero lives in the village of El Ancon, Spanish for the elbow, or riverbend, about 30 miles from the Pecos River, between Santa Fe and Las Vegas. In 1986, he helped found the New Mexico Acequia Association. An artist and scholar, he has traveled the world looking at water-efficient desert irrigation systems. Romero has been an advocate of instream-flow rights in a culture that rejects the idea as an attempt by environmentalists to steal its historic water rights.

Nicasio Romero: "It's no accident that the acequia system has been operating continuously and effectively for 300-400 hundred years. It is a political and cultural system. It's the thread that holds the community together.

"Every year at the annual meeting, we set dates for the irrigation season, when ditches will be clean and functioning. The annual meeting is the one time when people are allowed to say anything they want about the acequia. They can be really energetic. It forces people to come together.

"Every two years, the mayordomo and commissioners are elected by majority vote. It's a democratic system - one person, one vote. It allows the guy with one acre to be just as important as the guy with 30 acres.

"The commissioners set policy and the mayordomo carries it out day to day. If there's a bad storm and a ditch breaks, the mayordomo calls people together to fix it. During a drought, he can tell people to stop watering. Gardens get first priority, then orchards and planted fields.

"The acequias have senior water rights. Seventy to 80 percent of the surface water in New Mexico is controlled by acequias. But I see a day when the acequias' water rights are challenged. We're in competition with recreation, municipalities, high tech.

"We're trying to find solutions without getting into the courts. We're trying to come up with water banking and leasing arrangements, so that people who want to produce (farm) but don't have the water can get matched up with people who have the water but don't have the time or the health to produce. There's no reason acequias couldn't lease water in the short term to growing areas or cities.

"Instream flow is the most sensitive issue right now. New Mexico is the only state without instream flow legislation. The reason is the acequias. I used to be one of those guys who said, "No way, man, I'm against instream flow, period." If we don't address this issue, we're just burying our heads in the sand. We don't have the luxury anymore to sit back and say, "I have the water right and I can do anything with it." The Endangered Species Act can kick in and take that power away from you.

"We're trying to teach young people to protect the water, to have reverence and respect for the water, but they're removed spiritually from it, lost in a throwaway culture. Kids are exposed to mass dominant culture and they think that is what they should aspire to. It's literally tearing families apart. Most people would rather stay in the country, but when they're confronted with the enormous pressure to conform to the dominant culture's idea of the good life, they move to the cities.

"We know we're racing against time. Change is inevitable, but I can't do anything about the forests in Brazil. I can do something about the acequias."

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