A procession heads from the Gallinas River in Las Vegas, N.M. on Saturday toward the Congreso de las Acequias. They carry a small amount of water from the river for the Bendicion de las Aguas. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)
About 15 acequia stewards stood in a line at a Las Vegas, N.M. meeting hall on Saturday, each of them holding a few ounces of water they pulled from their home irrigation ditches.
One by one, they emptied their glasses into a large ceramic pot.
The longstanding ceremony – called the Bendición de las Aguas, or Blessing of the Waters – is part of the Congreso de las Acequias. It’s an annual meeting of mayordomos (acequia stewards) and advocates for the 600-plus historic waterways that carry water and make agriculture and life possible across the state.
Organizers said the ceremony is meant to emphasize that water is life and that stewards are united in its protection and defense.
This year, the event was held at the New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, a town south of the burn scar that was deeply affected by the biggest fire in state history. At least 48 acequias were damaged in the 340,000-acre fire or ensuing floods.
Acequias across New Mexico are struggling with natural disasters, climate change and ongoing disputes over water rights. Many of the water samples offered for the Bendición came from acequias running low due to drought, silted with debris or damaged by fire and flood.
Paula Garcia, director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, told acequia stewards after the Bendición that the historic waterways are facing two major threats, one from the fallout of human-caused climate change and another from the commodification of water.
“This is an ongoing crisis that’s not going anywhere anytime soon,” she said after citing weather forecasts showing continued drought and reduced snowpack. “So we’re called upon to try to survive in this crisis in a very water-short future.”
It’s not just the acequias within the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burn scar that are still reeling from natural disasters.
Twenty-four acequias are still damaged due to the Black Fire in southern New Mexico, which also erupted this year and became the state’s second-biggest-ever wildfire.
Another acequia is damaged from the Cerro Pelado Fire northwest of the Cochiti Pueblo, where about 50,000 acres burned in 2022.
Floods in Dixon, New Mexico destroyed several acequias. Elsewhere, reduced snowpack and ongoing drought threaten acequias.
In Las Vegas and areas south, the Gallinas River was flooded with silt from the fire runoff, and the city nearly lost its water supply.
William Gonzales, a farmer on the Gallinas River and regional acequia leader, said water rights associated with his acequia have been tied up in decades-long adjudication and litigation, which was so stressful that many farmers in the area gave up. Drought and silt from the fire runoff made this year particularly hard on his livelihood, he said.
“Our acequias are struggling,” Gonzales said Saturday morning, just after fetching a small pail of water from the Gallinas River to carry to the Congreso. “…So today we took a little bit of water from the river. We didn’t take a whole bucket, because I’m sure some cow downstream needs some water.”
The aftermath of the fires and floods – and what government is or isn’t doing to help – consumed much of the two-day Congreso.
U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján attended the event, telling acequia leaders that help is on the way.
Congress recently passed a $2.5 billion program to fully compensate victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, and he said he’ll advocate for funding for acequias in the Farm Bill, which funds an array of food and agriculture programs and comes up for renewal in 2023.
“I pray to God that we can make some differences there and get some things done,” Luján said.
Members of the Congreso considered and voted on 10 resolutions and declarations, including one asking the state to double the amount of funding allocated to helping acequias respond to disaster from $2.5 million to $5 million, as well as appropriate a one-time $10 million fund to help acequias damaged this year.
Another calls on the state and federal government to waive any share of the costs imposed on acequias for recovering from disasters. Acequias are small, volunteer organizations that do not carry much cash on hand, so even a 10% cost share of a disaster cleanup is too much, leaders said.
The acequia leaders also adopted a declaration that called 2022 the “worst year on record” for megafires, following years of severe drought.
“The trees, plants, roots, soils and cloud patterns that were our source of water and our source of life will never be the same again,” the declaration reads. “...Acequias, once flowing with clean, crystalline snowmelt from our beloved mountains, are clogged with ash and soils that eroded from burned hillslopes.”
“Still, the land endures. Burned, scarred, wounded, and eroded, our beloved land is still in our care.”
– Congresos de las Acequias declaration
The declaration spells out steps the acequia leaders say are required to ensure centuries-old waterways recover, including mobilizing communities, investing in thinning and erosion control to protect unharmed watersheds, establishing emergency seed banks and dedicating more resources toward developing drought-resistant crops and livestock.
“Still, the land endures,” the declaration says. “Burned, scarred, wounded, and eroded, our beloved land is still in our care.”
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