Danny Roybal, a mayordomo in Mimbres, N.M., on Dec. 15, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Empty, muddy banks in southern New Mexico show where the Mimbres River should be flowing. But flooding off the Black Fire burn scar was so intense in August that the water carved a new path, its new stream now littered with burnt, broken trees and destroyed irrigation debris.
Many farmers and ranchers in southern New Mexico living near the Gila National Forest rely on acequias that are now completely filled up with silt and debris from the fire, preventing them from controlling the flow of water entering their irrigation systems.
Danny Roybal is one of the people that uses the channels.
He’s retired, save for the work he does every day as a mayordomo. He’s been in the position for eight years, watching over the Grijalva Ditch that has nine laterals coming out of it in Mimbres, N.M. Since the Black Fire, he’s been working nearly every day to find help for the historic irrigation channels that will be inoperable come spring if repairs aren’t done.
“We have a livelihood on this river,” he said.
Roybal said only about a third of the ditches that depend on the Mimbres River in Grant County for irrigation can actually get water right now to residents
There are at least 24 acequias still damaged by the Black Fire.
These systems need to be cleaned up and fixed before irrigation time comes in early 2023, Roybal said. That could be as early as February for some in the area — depending on how dry the weather is — or as late as April.
“This type of work can’t be done overnight, so it needed to get started at least a month ago,” he said.
Roybal’s family has owned this land for generations, and flooding along the river isn’t new, he said. But, he added, “we’ve never seen the damage like we have this year, and it all has to do with debris coming off of that Black Fire.”
The Black Fire was the second-largest blaze in New Mexico history. It burned up vegetation and hardened soil in the Gila forest, allowing the heavy summer rains to flow more easily off the charred ground.
Along the Mimbres River, a slow and steady trickling of water that was a roaring flood just a few months ago made its way downstream. Burnt logs interrupted the flow, blocking it almost entirely in some areas. “It looks like toothpicks just laying across the river,” Roybal said.
In the shade, snow struggled to melt off fallen trees scattered throughout the river. Roybal had piled a bunch of timber up in front of his silt-filled ditch to prevent water from flooding through to his orchard field.
An old headgate sat further down the river near Roybal’s field. Rushing waters flooding the area dragged it several feet away from where it used to sit on the bank to its current home littering the middle of the stream with other debris. Skinny trees barren of leaves stood all around the river, potentially more threats to come in the water if the area floods again.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service will help remove debris out of the river, Roybal said, although the biggest issue facing the entire irrigation system is that the river’s path has been changed.
“It used to run straight every day, and that’s what I’d like to do is put it back,” he said, pointing at a dry channel where the river should be running. He paused and said, “I’m gonna put it back. I’m gonna put it back just because if we don’t take care of it, it’s gonna be worse.”
Headgates are posts made of wood or metal that control water flowing in and out of ditches. But now some gates aren’t even aligned with the water’s new path.
Roybal said one of his neighbors would need to build a 12-foot high structure to connect his ditch back to the river diversion again.
And that’s just for the gates still standing.
The strong waters in August also pulled gates down the river or flipped over and damaged others to the point of no use. The headgate Roybal depends on for his orchard — which got washed out in the flood — needs to be repaired. But the ditch where water would come through is full of debris and silt, as well.
Maybe, he said, some neighbors could help with a backhoe or farm tractors to clean out his own ditch. But even if that happened, he wouldn’t be allowed to let the water in because the headgate is broken and can’t control the flow. He said it’s also expensive to fix, costing thousands of dollars.
Roybal said flooding will continue to be an issue for at least three years until the vegetation starts growing back.
Where could help come from?
County governments can receive federal funding if the president declares a disaster declaration on the area. This happened with the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire in northern New Mexico
That’s what Roybal said he’s hoping for with the Black Fire.
In September, the N.M. Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) assessed how much it would cost to fix all the damage the Black Fire caused to the Grant County irrigation ditches.
State officials came up with about $46,000 worth of destruction for the acequias alone.
The affected areas in the south didn’t sustain damage costly enough to apply for a federal emergency declaration, according to the state.
In total, all the flooding damage done in and around the Gila added up to about $650,000, Roybal said. David Lienemann, spokesperson for DHSEM, said the communities needed at least $3.4 million to be able to apply for the federal disaster declaration. He said that’s why the governor signed a state disaster declaration in June instead to help out.
But Roybal said his acequia hasn’t gotten those funds, or the emergency declaration money that came in fall for flooding. Government-identified acequias that aren’t private are eligible for the state or federal disaster funding, though, Lienemann said.
Roybal said the costs the state came up with are lowballing the damage done. He said on his own look around at how much it’ll cost to fix the acequias, it added up to over $50,000. So he questioned whether the overall assessment was correct.
“I found almost $10,000 more in their assessment that could have been to our good,” he said. “The whole assessment is way under.”
Lienemann said the assessments aren’t just up to the state, though, and are done in collaboration with county managers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, too. “All three parties must agree on the final number of the damage assessments in question,” he said via email.
Roybal said normally, when the irrigation systems sustain damage, the acequia stewards just pitch in to fix it themselves, even though a lot of them are retired. But, he said, “when we have a damage like this, there’s no way that we could come up with $50,000 or $60,000.”
“I don’t have the money,” he said. “My people here don’t have the money.”
Roybal said the southern acequias stewards are currently trying to refill out the state paperwork for the disaster declaration so the costs add up correctly, maybe proving that there’s enough damage around the Gila to deserve a federal disaster declaration.
The difficulty trying to get financial aid is similar for acequia stewards recovering from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. Their ditches too are filled up with ash and silt.
Roybal said he’s going to keep searching for different avenues of financial help to fix what’s broken. He said he’s talked to other stewards at the Congreso de las Acequias this month about recovery ideas, asked state lawmakers to set aside acequia disaster funding and will keep doing more.
He’ll just keep going day by day, he said.
“I’m staying positive,” he said. “I’m hoping that we will have some kind of help come through, whether it be on the state level or be on the federal level.”
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