eNews February 2023

Acequia Drought Resiliency Project: NMAA and NM WRRI Partner to Prepare for the Future that is Here

Acequia Drought Resiliency Project: NMAA and NM WRRI Partner to Prepare for the Future that is Here

By Guest Contributor Serafina Lombardi, New Mexico Acequia Association Program Director, and Connie Maxwell, New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute Postdoctoral Researcher

Acequias have adapted to varying geographies, continents, ecologies, millennia, and political and economic regimens, but our greatest challenge yet may be the rapid and erratic impacts of climate change. This year alone, watersheds serving over 100 acequias saw the two largest wildfires in our state’s history, leaving acequias in Mora, San Miguel, Hidalgo, and Grant counties with severe to catastrophic flood damage and siltation, including the complete eradication of diversion dams. Farmers and ranchers lost out on an entire season of production and may never see the full recovery of their forests and watersheds. These life-changing events will require ongoing efforts to get basic infrastructure up and running.

Additional acequias in counties across the state are experiencing flood damage and drought, as exemplified in San Juan County’s severe July flood events. Our farmers are experiencing unpredictable and changing river flows due to variable snowpack and earlier runoff, leaving us to question when and what to plant and if we should at all. We also find many of our wells running dryer without the surface recharge due to increased pumping. The litany of climate disasters impacting New Mexico Farmers and Ranchers is now well known. The value of our sacred, local foodshed traditionally feeding our families is celebrated by those who live on the land. The true value of moving our surface water via flood irrigation is increasingly grasped by decision-makers. What is less documented and agreed on are the traditional and science-based tools acequia communities can engage in to address our rapidly changing climate to ensure we continue nourishing our aquifers and feeding one another.

NMAA and NM WRRI began an initiative titled Building Regional Agricultural and Water Resilience to identify and develop strategies and practices to support acequia communities to thrive in the face of critical challenges, particularly climate change. The vision and needs identified by our Acequia Leader Steering Committee have resulted in several successful funding efforts, and NMAA is grateful to be partnering with NM WRRI on the award of a Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART Drought Response Program: Drought Resiliency Project. This project is a game changer for our organizations to take the concerns and ideas we have been discussing for years and turn them into coherent and actionable responses. Our funded project proposal title is Regions of New Mexico with Acequia Water Distribution Systems: Tools to Adapt to Water Scarcity and Guide Implementation of Strategies to Increase Water and Community Resilience, which, in brief, is now referred to as the Acequia Drought Resiliency Project. This community-stakeholder-acequia-led driven process will:

  • develop water budget modeling tools that facilitate the creation and implementation of flexible water sharing and resilience strategies focused on the Northern Rio Grande and San Juan Basins of New Mexico
  • convene regional working groups of water users, policymakers, agency stakeholders, and scientists to collaboratively develop water budget models integrated with water and community resilience indicators and identify triggers for drought mitigation management, actions, and responses.

To achieve the above, we will gather lessons learned from existing acequia water-sharing agreements and traditional water-sharing practices; we will look at which water management practices have the most impact in adapting to drought conditions and how to integrate the most successful strategies into regional water management and planning approaches. The overall outcome will be to provide a roadmap to regional agriculture and water resilience centered on acequias to benefit all.

The NMAA centers traditional land-based knowledge in all our work, and our communities know that survival is based on being adaptive. The will to do the work is here. Now we have the chance to bring together the right partners to move the work forward together.