Congreso de las Acequias

At left: State Engineer, Scott Verhines, at the 2012 Congreso de las Acequias. Photo by Seth Roffman.

Congreso de las Acequias

By Quita Ortiz

The 13th annual Congreso de las Acequias took place in mid-November in Santa Fe. Considering our harsh circumstances regarding water scarcity and food security, the NMAA wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the history of our acequias and imagine the potential future for our communities.

Following the customary Bendicion de las Aguas, in which regional delegates from throughout the state bring water from their areas for a blessing, NMAA's Executive Director, Paula Garcia, presented the annual report, covering the past year of work that's been completed by the organization including updates on the various community projects and organizational development.

State Engineer, Scott Verhines, was invited to participate as the keynote speaker. His presentation focused on drought and the OSE's AWRM (Active Water Resource Management). "We've had the worst two years of drought in our history", he said. In fact, as of early November, 2012 is the driest year on record. Considering the precipitation projections for the coming months, the reality of the situation is no less than dire. Verhines confirmed that the whole state of New Mexico is in a severe drought, impacting various sectors and resources in the state. He noted that our aquifers are not being replenished, our reservoirs are being depleted, we're continually experiencing above normal temperatures, fires are devastating our forests and impacting nearby communities, and ranchers across the state are selling their herds in large numbers. Coming out a dry La Niña cycle, there were hopes to transition into an El Niño cycle, which is marked with increased precipitation, but according to Verhines it's unlikely.

Following the summary of current and projected precipitation and climate trends, Verhines gave an overview of the status of AWRM. In response to the severe drought in 2002, legislation was passed that allowed for expedited water markets. "Adjudication takes many years," he said, "but in times of drought, the need to administer water is immediate." This legislation called on the OSE to determine mechanisms to carry out immediate water administration, which spawned the creation of AWRM. This legislation was challenged in 2005 by various water stakeholders who felt this process was unconstitutional because it would lack due process in determining water rights. Both District Court and the Court of Appeals agreed that the legislation was unconstitutional. But on November 1st, a Supreme Court decision overturned those rulings. Verhines described the ruling as an opportunity to "find mechanisms to deal with the need for water administration without waiting for the adjudication process to be complete". Verhines realizes that this decision puts a lot of power in the hands of one agency but assured us of his intent to find a way to "administer water with the latitude to do it best in both directions". He continued, "We would like to be ready to deal with it next year, should we have to." The OSE plans to revisit each of the seven priority basins, and work with stakeholders on how to move the process forward. "That's the intent of this. I think it's a good thing," he said. Verhines assured the audience that he values acequias and is eager to cooperate with acequia leaders on water issues.

The Congreso de las Acequias luncheon was followed by the State Engineer's presentation. It included the acequia awards ceremony which honored acequieros from around the state. Pedro Romero was given the Outstanding Acequia Farmer/Rancher award; Gilbert Sandoval and Medardo Sanchez both received Outstanding Mayordomo awards; the South Valley Regional Acequia Association were presented with the Outstanding Acequia Advocate award; and Facundo Valdez and John Carangelo were honored with Lifetime Achievement awards.

Following the luncheon, the Congreso featured a panel presentation that hopefully left our attendees pondering the future of acequias and considering the steps we need to take in order to ensure a positive future for our acequias. Estevan Arellano presented a beautiful story that painted a picture of the history of acequias based on his own experience, at one point reminiscing about wise words that came from his grandpa, "No les tengo miedo a los de afuera que nos quieren comprar, sino a los de adentro que nos quieren vender.". His story was followed by NMAA's Janice Varela, who covered the present state of acequias. She told the story of an elderly woman who still has a garden and ranch and described the current state of acequias. Yolanda Jaramillo presented the story of a dismal future of acequias in which all the land is sold and dried and our acequias are virtually extinct. Her story was contrasted by a positive future envisioned by Joseluis Ortiz, delivered in a poetic format that told the story of a culturally-rich family that is tied to the land and water, telling their youth the steps that were taken that ensured their current situation. We hope this timeline of stories invoked critical thinking among the audience.

Following the panel presentation were concurrent workshops. We hosted a USDA workshop presented by representatives from NRCS (Cliff Sanchez) and FSA (Mary Ann Romero) who were on hand to answer questions and provide information about land management, conservation plans, and special projects. The other workshop focused on water sharing in times of scarcity. Panelists included William Gonzales who shared his experiences and struggles surrounding issues with the City of Las Vegas and NMAA's Kenny Salazar covered issues with sharing water within a community. This workshop also featured Tomas Trujillo from the Office of the Eighth Judicial District Attorney, who covered the enforcement of acequia laws.

As always, the Congreso was wrapped with the delegates who presented and voting on a number of resolutions. Some of the resolution topics include restoring the Irrigation Works Construction Fund, reformation of the state funding process for acequias and community ditches, support for regional water planning, and urging Federal, State, and Local Governments to coordinate on forest management. There were a total of eight resolutions that were passed by the Congreso.

New Mexico Acequia Association is the only statewide association of acequias in New Mexico. It was founded in 1990 with the purpose of advocating for acequias on issues related to water transfers and other acequia governance issues. The NMAA hosted its first Congreso de las Acequias in the late '90s and since then the organization has expanded its work into different program areas including land and water, food and agriculture, and community organizing and leadership development. Through this expansion, the NMAA has worked to strengthen acequia governance and support local projects to renew and revitalize agriculture and irrigation infrastructure.

If you have any questions about the Congreso de las Acequias feel free to contact us at (505) 995-9644 or send us a message through our online contact form and we'll get back to you.