A broken acequia headgate lays in the Mimbres River on Dec. 15, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Farmers and ranchers are dealing with clogged-up irrigation systems affecting their livelihoods because of last year’s massive wildfires and floods. Now, they’re looking for ways to clean up all the damage and get water flowing again.
Senate Bill 176 would create a $5 million pot that acequia stewards and communities could pull from each year to help recover from disasters that have happened and could occur in the future.
It got through the Senate Conservation Committee on Tuesday with bipartisan support and is heading to Senate Finance.
Paula Garcia spoke as an expert on the bill and said irrigation channels are full of silt, ash and debris after the destructive fires and floods last year. Garcia, the executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, said the money would help meet the needs of those damaged irrigation systems.
“What we’re looking for is responsiveness to the unique needs of acequias,” she said.
Gillian Joyce, spokesperson for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, said these historic irrigation systems are the only way agriculture can thrive in areas that don’t have many wells, or any at all.
“Many of these acequias that are being impacted by these disasters we’ve seen, they look like they haven’t been dug out in 50 years,” she said. “They have so much sediment in them.”
Garcia said many of the acequias hit by the 2022 disasters need to be fixed up in the coming weeks or months.
“They will not flow this spring, and that’s endangering a whole way of life that’s been in our valley for hundreds of years,” she said.
If it passes and is signed into law, the legislation won’t go into effect until July.
Garcia said there’s still time to add an emergency clause, which would have the measures kick in right away if passed. If that doesn’t happen, she said she’s glad the legislation could help in the long term.
“Tragically, other mountains are going to burn, other villages, other communities,” Garcia said.
Paying for what acequias can’t
This legislation builds on a fund that already exists. Currently, the acequia and community ditch infrastructure fund has $2.5 million available annually through the N.M. Interstate Stream Commission to set up new irrigation systems and keep the channels in good shape.
That money comes from a state acequia construction fund. This legislation would double that amount and expand where the dollars can be spent.
It would also help pay for repair costs that many acequia stewards, a position that’s often volunteer-based, can’t afford on their own. State or federal emergency funding will cover most costs for these projects, but local officials are required to come up with the rest of the bill.
Sen. Pete Campos (D-Las Vegas) said there are over 700 acequias in the state, and many don’t have the resources or money to cover their share. The proposal he is sponsoring would eliminate the necessary cost-share requirements. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re hoping to move forward with a very straightforward appropriation request,” he said.
Arthur Romero came to the Roundhouse from Holman, N.M. in Mora County to represent the acequias in his area. He said their acequia fund is next to nothing, and they can’t afford to repair the fire and flood damage on their own.
“We really need help on cleaning these things out and getting as much as we can done,” he said.
Sen. Leo Jaramillo (D-Española), one of the bill’s sponsors, said this fund will make recovery dollars available to “New Mexicans who understand the acequia community, who understand the landscape and what it means to keep it.”
“We need to ensure that water continues to flow into our valley and continues to provide for our way of life,” Jaramillo said.
While nobody directly opposed the bill, not everyone was in favor of every detail.
Jonathan Martinez is the acequia program manager for the Interstate Stream Commission. He said the agency supports the legislation but does have some concerns about locals not having to pay anything for repair projects.
“We feel that by having some local cost-share with the local communities that we tend to see that they’re more engaged in the overall project, in the process of having a project completed for them,” he said.
He said the commission is open to eliminating the cost-share requirement for disaster response projects post fire or flood events, or setting it up so there’s less money locals have to pay upfront. The agency is worried about taking it away for every acequia set-up and upkeep project, he said.
Campos said there are questions as to if the proposed resources should go to the Interstate Stream Commission, as the bill is currently drafted, or directly to the Office of the State Engineer. He said the Senate Finance and water subcommittees could help hammer out some of those details.
Sen. David Gallegos (R-Enuice) asked if there are any other resources available to help the irrigation channels. Campos said there are not enough, because the areas are considering a flood threat that could come soon as the state expects major snowcap melt to come from Colorado.
“Yes, there could be additional resources available,” he said. “But again, we’re trying to make all the resources available for the long term because it’s going to take more than the resources that we have available in order to go ahead and clean out our acequias.”
Federal resources don’t come down quickly, either, Garcia added. She said there’s a short timeframe to get debris out of the acequias. Irrigation season starts every year in the spring.
And, she said, not all areas even have federal resources. She used the Black Fire as an example, where acequias don’t have enough damage to qualify for federal help.
“The debris removal is what’s really critical, and it’s what has to happen within a matter of weeks or months to get the water flowing again,” she said. “If the water doesn’t flow, that means people are in a position where they have to sell their cattle, they’re not growing hay.”
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