Age-Old New Mexico Water-Sharing System in Peril

The acequia system is a centuries-old community water-sharing network used in New Mexico. Water is diverted for agriculture according to a seniority system. But drought and increased population threaten the old way of doing things in the southwest corner of the state.

HOWARD BERKES, host:

Water has always been the most precious resource in the American West. Since the early Spanish settlements 300 years ago, many communities in New Mexico have shared water as part of the acequia, or community ditch system.

The ancient irrigation tradition continues. But as Doug Fine reports, drought, development and modern legal battles are forcing the state to weigh in on acequia decisions for the first time.

(Soundbite of flowing water)

DOUG FINE reporting:

Flowing acequia water is at the corps of the traditional farming culture and economy in Southwest New Mexico's Mimbres Valley.

FINE: Ruben Montoya is a late middle-aged man in a well-worn cowboy hat. As he walks the ditch, this third generation valley farmer remembers when the whole community would gather for the annual spring acequia cleaning, in preparation for the planting season.

Mr. RUBEN MONTOYA (Farmer): You used to do it with a lot of men, teams of horses, and scrapers, and things like that. And ever since I can remember, we always have a community gathering, maybe once a year.

FINE: Early Spanish accounts have the first New Mexico community ditches dug in the early 1700s. To this day, the mayordomo, or leader of each community acequia organization, diverts a river into a network of snaking ditches that soak each farm.

Dennis Chavez(ph) has been growing apples in the shadow of the nearby Black Mountain Range for 50 years.

Mr. DENNIS CHAVEZ (Apple Farmer): If we didn't have enough water here, whatever, you went up and you talked to your neighbors, and we shared what there was. Seemed to work out pretty good.

FINE: But this year, a tremor of unease is running through this sun-baked river valley of windmills and wooden fences. That's because the state is for the first time stepping in to take some control of the ancient water sharing system. Chavez, in his pointed cowboy boots and Poncho Via mustache, doesn't like it. He sees acequias as community managed, period, since 100 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Mr. CHAVEZ: Recently then, things have changed and I'm not so sure that it's - that it's for the best.

FINE: Here's what's changing. The mayordomos will still dole out the water, but state engineers will decide how much water each acequia gets. The reasons for state involvement read like a litany of modern western problems. Subdivision is sinking more and more wells into the limited water Mimbres Valley water table. Different acequia groups are suing each other for taking too much water. And behind all the arguing is a historic drought so bad, it's like nothing in Farmer Montoya's memory or his family's memory.

Mr. MONTOYA: This part of the country, we used to get a lot of snow, especially up in the mountains. But there's been several years, I'd say 10-15 years, that we haven't had a good snow in this valley.

FINE: As a result, the meandering Mimbres River, the life-blood of this valley, is down to one-seventh of its normal flow, and so water managers have chosen the Mimbres as one of their first critical management areas.

The plan comes in two steps. First, monitor how much water each acequia gets, and second, raise or lower outputs from the river to the acequia as conditions demand. And so, on this hot spring morning, state engineers office staff are installing a flume, a sort of measuring funnel. Brian Stevenson(ph), the state's water master for the upper Mimbres River Valley, is on site. It's his job to explain the new installation to often angry acequia farmers. Stevenson says it probably doesn't hurt that he's a former military man who is built like a defensive lineman.

Mr. BRIAN STEVENSON (Water Master): The day-to-day dealings with the people on the river can be pretty touch. Everyday, someone else is taking too much water according to different ditches and different mayordomos.

FINE: State officials say that major water rationing is possible here, if this year stays dry. Faced with that threat, Dennis Chavez looks over the flowering orchard that his father first planted a half century ago. He says his future here is tied to the survival of the acequia way of life.

CHAVEZ: I never thought that I'd live to see the day when I'd say that I want to leave this place. You know, but increasingly the way it's looking and the way things are shaping up from year to year, I'm probably at that point where I'll certainly consider, in fact, relocating.

FINE: State officials hope that by brining a scientific voice to the table, the acequia tradition will endure even if farmers have to adjust to the uncomfortable notion of an outsider in the ditch. For NPR News, I'm Doug Fine.

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