Carlos Arellano, mayordomo of an acequia in the burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, stands alongside what used to be a healthy acequia on his land in late September. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)
Dozens of historic irrigation channels in the burn scar of the state’s biggest wildfire remain damaged, the New Mexico Acequia Association told a legislative panel on Thursday.
Of 68 acequias that the association has identified in and around the 340,000-acre burn scar, at least 41 are damaged. Another 11 are likely damaged. The rest are not known or confirmed to be unharmed. That’s according to the association’s months-long survey of damage in the burn scar, compiled for review by the New Mexico’s Interim Land Grant Committee on Thursday in Chilili, N.M.
Acequias are essential for agriculture in the areas affected by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, and they must be repaired quickly to avoid another year of lost livelihood for farmers and ranchers in the area. There are at least 2,000 farms in San Miguel and Mora Counties, the counties hit hardest by the fire.
So far, acequias and the association advocating for them have had challenges finding funding to repair them. For one, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has only recently allowed acequias to apply for funding typically reserved for public entities. Thirty-four acequias have applied, though it requires “extensive technical assistance” from the shorthanded association to complete the applications.
And the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has denied funding requests. Acequias often need backhoes and hand crews to dig out silt and debris carried there by intense post-fire flooding.
The ditches are getting some help from the state’s Department of Transportation, association representative David Garcia told lawmakers, and that agency is getting reimbursed for any costs by FEMA. Hand crews from Americorps are also chipping in.
Overall, the association is asking for lawmakers to create a revolving contingency fund to help acequias with costs. The small acequias are extremely cash-strapped. They don’t generate revenue, and the small annual fees paid by parciantes are quickly spent.
State Sen. Leo Jaramillo (D-Española) chairs the committee. He told Source New Mexico after the meeting that such a fund is necessary, because acequias simply don’t have cash reserves needed to pay for emergencies, even if they’ll be reimbursed later, or if they’re paying 10% or 25% for of a tab otherwise picked up by the federal government.
“They just don’t have the cash on hand,” he said.
It’s likely that the $2.5 billion compensation fund recently passed by Congress will include some funding for acequias, as well, but it will still be months before that money begins to reach the ground, and FEMA is still writing rules about how that will work.
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