First disaster relief dollars for southern acequias to come from private donation

State disaster aid promised but still hasn’t arrived

By: - February 20, 2023 4:30 am
A slanted acequia headgate with debris over it sits in the Mimbres River. Two dogs stand near it.

Dogs stand near a broken headgate in the Mimbres River on Dec. 15, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Warmer, longer days mean farmers and ranchers need to start irrigating water. In parts of southern New Mexico, that work is stalled because damaged acequias are still running dry due to last year’s massive disaster season that started with the Black Fire.

Time is running out to fix up the irrigation systems that are needed for spring, and acequia stewards in the region, concerned about losing income this year, are still trying to get emergency disaster funds promised by the state to come down because they can’t afford to restore everything from their own checkbooks.

The Black Fire’s blaze

The Black Fire burned over 325,000 acres of the Gila National Forest from May to August 2022, the second-largest wildfire recorded in the state’s history. Flooding also swept through the area and remains a threat in and around the Gila.

A recent private donation could help jumpstart some of the repairs needed.

Last month, a former Mimbres resident contacted acequia steward Danny Roybal. That person told Roybal they read about how acequias in the south are struggling with disaster recovery, and asked Roybal how much he needed to fix all the damage.

Roybal’s a mayordomo who watches over the Grijalva ditch association in Grant County. Just that system alone would take around $50,000 to fully repair, he said.

So that person, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote him a $50,000 check.

“That’s from a private, anonymous donor — not our state government or federal government or anything,” Roybal said. “Just somebody with a very, very, very kind heart.”

Roybal didn’t accept the donation right away. He said there are too many other acequia systems around him that also need help.

He sent the check over to the New Mexico Acequia Association last week, and the nonprofit said it will evenly distribute the funds in the coming days to about a dozen stewards that need to repair damaged Mimbres irrigation systems.

None of the dozens of Grant County acequias have gotten any state or federal funds. This private donation will be the first recovery money they will receive in the nine months since the disasters started.

Paula Garcia is the executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. She said for months the organization has been working with the southern disaster-affected irrigation systems, and calling them weekly to talk about recovery efforts.

“It's amazing how many months after the disaster, this private money will be the first money that they get,” she said.

It was the same situation for acequias hit by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire in northern New Mexico. Western Sky Community Care, a health insurance agency, donated $100,000 in November 2022 that the association helped distribute. Ditch work had just recently started up there, she said, before the winter snow and cold put it on pause.

“These private donations are the first money that any of them are going to see,” Garcia said.

Jennie Bierner is the business manager for the Sierra County Water and Soil Conservation District, another area hurt by the Black Fire and flooding. She said that no acequias in the county have received any financial aid.

The floods post fire hit all five acequias in the county, she said. Bierner said people are using their own cash to patch up ditches because they need the water running now.

It’s all band-aid work, she added, and the infrastructure won’t last in the long run, especially when more floods hit.

“A lot of people are just having to find a way to fix their ditch so that they can irrigate and not lose everything that they already have planted,” Bierner said.

She said one system needs major funding for its repairs. In lieu of getting any state or federal funds or even private donations, she said the stewards increased their water dues so they can afford to fix it up.

“They’re spending money they don’t have to try to get the water back in,” Bierner said.

The Sierra County acequias aren’t eligible for the funds from the private donation. The money will only go to about a dozen acequias in Mimbres, which is located in Grant County. There are dozens more irrigation systems scattered across southern New Mexico that the fires and floods damaged.

Roybal said it’ll cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to get all the acequias in Grant County repaired, and not everyone will be covered fully by government or private aid. 

But the $50,000 check is still a good start, Garcia said.

“A little bit of funding can go a long way,” she said.

Repairs now won’t put these acequias totally in the clear. Water will keep running off the charred land in the Gila for years, resulting in floods every monsoon season. That could easily tear up recently repaired channels all over again.

Roybal said he just wants the systems to be stabilized now and then to deal with flooding damage in the future. For example, he said, one of his neighbors has to create a concrete barrier soon so his ditch doesn’t just get washed out the next time it floods.

The next flood could come as soon as the snow melts.

A river with barely any water runs with barren trees overlook it.
The Mimbres River flows through southern New Mexico on Dec. 15, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Garcia said getting one irrigation done in spring, before the monsoons come again, could make a significant economic impact on a community that relies on crops and livestock that need water from the acequias.

She said this private donation could also serve as a moral boost. But, she added, this funding doesn’t make up for the other assistance that’s still needed.

“It's a good complement to state and federal disaster funding,” she said. “It definitely does not replace it.”

State-promised funds

In September 2022, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an emergency declaration for some southern counties, making $750,000 available for fire or flood repair and prevention work. However, that money only works on a reimbursement basis and covers 75% of the work, leaving the other quarter to the locals.

Justin Gojkovich, Grant County Emergency Manager, said his county hasn’t received any of that money. Sierra County Commissioner Jim Paxon said the same.

Gojkovich said acequia repairs in Grant are on hold because he isn’t sure if the county will get reimbursed for that work. Stewards are now filling out state disaster paperwork to show damage costs and prove their eligibility.

In the meantime, the state committed around $375,000 in emergency money this month for acequias stewards to help cover the remaining bills left from the first round of funding.

$5 million proposal could help acequias recover from disasters in the past and future

Maggie Fitzgerald, spokesperson for the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, said that money should be available after Feb. 23 when state agencies figure out work agreements. She said that funding doesn’t have any cost-share or reimbursement requirements.

Roybal said he’s still a bit skeptical about how soon that aid will come. After nearly half a year without any help, he said, it’s difficult to believe any money will arrive quickly.

“After so many months, all you hear is, ‘Yes, we're going to move it on, we're going to move it on,’” he said. “But nothing is here, now.”

Roybal said he’ll keep cautiously waiting until he hears “‘Yes, we have the money here, and we could get a contractor on the ground right now.’”

Bierner said even if the money comes through, these small counties don’t have the staff or capacity to administer it all correctly. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault, she said; a disaster just wrecked the region.

“It's just a matter of getting everybody on the same page,” she said. “Just because there's money doesn't mean it can be fully administered in the ways that it was intended.”

There’s no federal funding available for these communities. Billions are going to restore regions in northern New Mexico because the federal government claimed responsibility for the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.

The cause of the Black Fire is still under investigation.

Black Fire legislation introduced that would send disaster funds to southern NM

So the acequias in southern New Mexico can only turn to the state, Garcia said. Figuring out the disaster recovery process has been a steep learning curve for everyone, she added.

Garcia said there are some options with state agencies to help out with debris removal, which needs to happen as soon as possible. The N.M. Interstate Stream Commission already helped Grant County acequias figure out damage costs, she added.

Some state legislation is aiming to get more dollars down south, too, like a bill that would create a disaster recovery funding pot for acequias and a measure that would get $3 million for Black Fire victims.

Still, she said, there’s a lot of room for the state to improve its disaster response. She wants to see New Mexico be better prepared to handle disasters before they happen. 

She added that the state’s disaster agencies are under-resourced and it’s a system issue that more money won’t necessarily fix. 

“It's not going to happen in time for people to irrigate in March, and that's heartbreaking because we've already lost one irrigation season,” she said. “And we're probably going to lose a second one at the rate we're going.”

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.