Acequia view: Water-sharing traditions adaptable to 21st Century

For smaller agriculture users in New Mexico, answers to the water shortage are found in the wisdom of the early Native Americans and Spanish settlers, as well as in the language of prior appropriation. “Water scarcity is nothing new in New Mexico,” said Paula Garcia, director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. “Scarcity is deeply rooted in the land and the people.”

Early state societies have long memories, preserved in oral histories, of dealing with water scarcity “based on a sense of mutuality,” she said. “We have a lot to learn from that type of knowledge as a framework for water sharing.” Garcia’s remarks came during a panel discussion at the 57th Annual New Mexico Water Conference on August 28, 2012. Garcia, who is also a Mora County commissioner, urged state and federal water managers to work with local majordomos and other community leaders to establish a relationship of negotiation and collaboration within the prior appropriation framework.

Prior appropriation is a legal framework used in most Western states to settle water disputes. The system awards water rights based on the dates of filing, with “senior” or early water users having the priority over “junior” rights holders. The acequia systems hold relatively senior water rights, which is a blessing, Garcia said. Farmers understand that “the bigger numbers are going to prevail” and that communities must have water. “We all have a stake in having a viable agriculture system, where we can produce our food locally and it doesn’t always have to come to conflict,” Garcia said.

“From a custom of sharing water between acequias, we are starting to see discussions of sharing water across entire basins, or cities and towns sharing with irrigators. Prior appropriation is a factor, but now we are seeing parties willingly coming together to share water,” she told the audience.

Water markets are in place in New Mexico for buying and selling of water rights and they are “increasingly viewed as a remedy for supply problems.” The problem with these markets, she said, is that they focus only on the economic value of water and are not “mindful of impacts on rural communities. . . . Unfettered, water markets could end our agricultural future.”

A system that “allows for changing needs, but also protects what we find valuable for our communities,” is needed, she said. “We need an adaptive regulatory format for water transfers rather than permanent transfers. We need to allow water to stay in agriculture over the long- term, but still use it to address short-term shortages,” Garcia said. The state engineer has proposed alternative water administration tools for the state to administer by priority, with the flexibility to say that if the parties can come together and work out an agreement that will be a viable approach, she said.

She called for users’ incentives to negotiate rather than fall back on the appropriations system, when considering new projects. Planning can ensure that access to water is equitable for all users, she said. “This is not a zero sum game, where agriculture loses and some other user with more resources tends to use the water.”

Despite daunting challenges, New Mexico can improve and adapt to changing conditions, she said. “We have a spirit of cooperation and a broader view of not only looking at our own rights and defending the rights for our communities, but also looking at the water and taking care of it for future generations.”

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