Clock is ticking on burn scar agriculture as waterways remain clogged

NM congressional rep. says FEMA agreed back in June that acequias qualify for aid. It’s still on its way.

By: - October 13, 2022 5:00 am

Grace Vigil stands in her yard northeast of Mora, N.M. where a flood ripped past July 12. Since then, the 200-year-old acequia that waters her and 30 other parciantes has gone dry due to a clogged culvert and 100 yards of silt. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

If the vital irrigation infrastructure winding through the 500-square-mile burn scar in northern New Mexico isn’t repaired in the next few weeks, advocates warn that the charred and flooded region could lose at least a year’s worth of agriculture and ranching. And funding that could help won’t likely come in time.

Historic irrigation channels known as acequias have fallen through the cracks, advocates say, of a federal and state response to the biggest fire in history. The blaze was accidentally started by the federal government in April and destroyed about 1,000 structures.

Ensuing floods damaged the roughly 80 acequias covering more than 100 miles in the burn scar, and it left the vast majority clogged with silt or debris. 

Advocates and mayordomos have gone back and forth with state and federal agencies for months seeking help in the form of backhoes or hand crews. But only recently did the Federal Emergency Management Agency finally begin accepting applications from acequias for its Public Assistance Program, and none have been approved so far. 

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Advocates are also pushing to make sure acequias can get some of the newly enacted $2.5 billion compensation program for fire victims, but it will likely be months before the first check reaches victims. Rules are still being established about how individuals and potentially groups of acequia users can bundle their applications for some of the historic windfall.  

Frustrated, United States Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, whose district is marred by the burn scar, sent a letter to FEMA Secretary Deanne Criswell late last month. She wrote that FEMA had agreed all the way back in June that acequias are political entities and should therefore qualify for the program.

“Every time my office has communicated with FEMA, we are assured that acequias are eligible for public assistance under the disaster declaration. Yet every time we have spoken with the acequias, they are having applications held up for a new reason,” she wrote in the letter sent Sept. 24. “FEMA’s failure to convey the correct information to its field staff or those processing applications has exacerbated an already difficult disaster.

FEMA, in a statement to Source New Mexico on Wednesday, said the agency is now approving applications as it receives them from the state. The agency did not address why it’s taken so long to accept applications or whether it agreed in June that acequias qualified.

The state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has so far submitted seven applications on the acequias’ behalf. FEMA expects the state to submit 35, according to spokesperson Angela Byrd.

Of the seven applications, six were approved as of Wednesday, and one is pending as the agency awaits additional documentation, Byrd said.

The letter from Leger Fernandez goes on to say that time is running out.

“Repair work on acequias needs to start immediately so work can be completed before the winter freeze and so that the acequias are operational when irrigation begins in the Spring,” she said. “These communities already lost so much. We must not force them to forgo another year without the ability to plant their crops.”

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Leger Fernandez asks, in closing, for the number of pending acequia applications, an estimate of how long they’ll take to be resolved and for FEMA to hold a workshop with the state to iron out any issues. 

Advocates like Paula Garcia, director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, have said getting the acequias flowing again will mitigate flooding, and also allow ranchers and farmers a foothold back in the landscape. Acequias flowing means hay can be irrigated, which means farmers can feed their cattle without having to pay for hay elsewhere. 

Antonia Roybal-Mack, a Mora resident and attorney seeking clients in the burn scar, held a meeting Oct. 1 at a middle school lecture hall with mayordomos to hear about their concerns. She said the confluence of land grants, water rights, lack of documentation and acequias’ quasi-governmental status make the 200-year-old structures the “most complicated” of any rebuilding effort in the burn scar.

And they’re crucial for life to return, she said. 

“I really look at this is one of the most critical crisis needs in front of us, because the sooner we get our agriculture back up and operating, the sooner that communities can recover as a whole,” she said. 

There are about 2,000 farms in San Miguel and Mora Counties, according to the 2019 Census of Agriculture conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture. 

The farms attach their fates to the acequias that trickle through their properties. These days, many acequias are so full of silt, they resemble hiking trails through drying farmland. 

It’s not just FEMA that’s dropped the ball, either, according to Roybal-Mack and Garcia. DHSEM could do better as well, they said. 

Roybal-Mack said she doesn’t know why the state can’t simply pay for a backhoe, fuel and hourly wages for workers, and then seek reimbursement from FEMA later. 

“That’s a question I’ve been asking since the start of this thing,” she said. 

The state has asked the federal government to reimburse nearly $10 million in costs related to the fire, a spokesperson for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said recently.

DHSEM did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. 

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.