Southern acequia stewards try to understand ‘muddy’ disaster recovery process
A slew of state funding and repair options are available but likely won’t arrive in time for irrigation season
The Mimbres River that feeds the Perralt ditch association. Pictured on Feb. 21, 2023. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Grant County acequia stewards gathered in Silver City on Wednesday, knowing they need to start irrigating crops within weeks.
They also do not fully understand how to access state disaster aid. To find out where to start in their recovery process, the group gathered state officials to explain where different avenues of funding can come from.
The flooding that followed the Black Fire, the state’s second-largest recorded wildfire that tore through the Gila National Forest in 2022, ripped apart acequia infrastructure and dragged debris downstream that still blocks ditches where water should be flowing.
Now, acequia stewards need construction equipment to move fallen trees off of culverts that have cracked from the pressure, or new fencing to prevent the river flow from pouring over into farms, damaging fields and crops.
Acequias are political subdivisions in New Mexico, the only state where the systems are quasi-governmental. Small communities of farmers and ranchers elect leaders, usually on a volunteer basis, to run the irrigation system they share and depend on for their livelihoods.
With small bank accounts, the stewards can’t afford to fix all the damage. Irrigation season starts in March, so they need to start figuring out solutions soon.
Different state agencies offer disaster relief options for acequias.
On Thursday, the Interstate Stream Commission, a subdivision of the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, unanimously approved another $1.25 million for short-term repair work. The commission passed $500,000 in January, so there will now be $1.75 million total.
That money will be available on a reimbursement basis and has no cost-share requirements at this time, according to Maggie Fitzgerald, spokesperson for the Office of the State Engineer.
Fitzgerald said the commission is also considering allocating up to $300,000 in state money for the Grant County Soil and Water Conservation District so officials from districts around the state can help with post fire and flood repairs.
The N.M. Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has about $1.4 million available so the state Department of Transportation can help with acequia repairs.
That work is expected to start on Monday.
The other funding available from the state emergency management department is only for a few counties and is part of a pot that requires reimbursement. This came from executive orders signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in fall 2022. Those set aside $750,000 for different public entities to recover from fire and flooding damage.
Acequias stewards and mayordomos in Grant County have had a few hold-ups with that process. Grant County Emergency Manager Justin Gojkovich said county officials weren’t sure they would get reimbursed for that work, so it’s up to acequias to apply for state relief on their own behalf.
The acequia stewards in Grant County have systems scattered across the southwestern edges of the Gila. The stewards are in different stages of submitting applications to and updating their system information with the state.
Matthew Smith is a senior program manager for High Water Mark, LLC, an environmental consulting firm the New Mexico Acequia Association paid to help stewards through the recovery process. He said reimbursements often take eight months to a year to arrive.
If the money runs out from the governor’s executive order, which Smith said is likely, the county and stewards can request more.
That funding from the governor only covers 75% of the work. Many of the stewards are worried about how to afford paying for the other quarter, much less all of the costs, upfront.
For example, if a Mimbres irrigation system needs $50,000 for a headgate fix and machinery to clean out debris in a rural area, its steward would have to pay the full $50,000. Then they would have to wait to get the reimbursement, and still be out $12,500.
Other relief dollars could help offset those losses.
Grant County sets aside $600,000 to help acequias that lack immediate state aid
Grant County commissioners recently approved a $600,000 grant that should be going to stewards in just over a week. Gojkovich said the main goal of this funding is to get water flowing in dry ditches again, but it could also be used to prove stewards have paid for 25% of work.
Legislators are trying to push other funding opportunities, too, including $3 million for Black Fire recovery and a $5 million pot that could be used for acequia disaster recovery.
Destre Shelley is a steward in the Gila Valley. She said the meeting on Wednesday was the first time relief money from the state truly started coming together.
She said that the N.M. agencies really want to help and are well-intentioned but need to work out their coordination.
“The main intention is to understand what are all the funding sources,” Shelley said. “The challenge is nobody talks to anyone. None of the government agencies are talking to anybody. They don’t know what’s going on with each other.”
The recovery dollars and state aid is already coming in late, Shelley said. March, the irrigation season, is next week. She said if enough funding doesn’t come quickly enough, the stewards just have to keep fighting.
“You sit there and just keep digging at what we’re doing to try and get water in the ditch someway, somehow,” she said.
The acequias in Grant County are also getting dollars from private individuals and companies. An anonymous individual donated $50,000 to acequias in Mimbres that should be dispersed in the coming days, and the mining company Freeport-McMoRan Inc. gave a $100,000 grant to acequias in the Gila Valley. Shelley said the check from Freeport arrived this week.
First disaster relief dollars for southern acequias to come from private donation
“Freeport was instrumental in that,” she said. “They supported their community by doing that for us.”
Some of the Grant County acequia stewards plan to ask for capital outlay funds, too. But they’re decades behind on paperwork with the Office of the State Auditor because they didn’t know they were supposed to be doing the paperwork.
Smith said it’s up to the stewards to contact the state to make themselves known and organize their auditing forms, a necessity to get capital outlay funds.
Some of the procedures to get acequias up-to-date can be complicated, like the need to have a licensed public accountant, which can be costly.
“These guys operate just off the kitchen table,” Smith said.
A muddled recovery process
Grant County acequias stewards are the ones making sure all state aid comes to their bank accounts. Smith said it may not be the same for mayordomos responsible for acequias in other affected counties because they don’t know where to start to ask for help.
“There’s acequias in different counties that have been impacted, and we don’t know,” he said. “And they just don’t know where to go, what to do.”
Smith said New Mexico disaster agencies are understaffed and under-resourced, making the recovery process difficult. Even in past disasters, he said, “it’s always just kind of muddy water to boggle.”
The disasters in New Mexico last year were exceptional, he pointed out. In the future, people will have to figure out the recovery process, just like people in Grant County are trying to understand.
“We’re realizing as a society as a whole, that we just can’t move on from a fire or disaster and think everything’s going to be okay; we’re just going to rebuild it and go on,” he said. “No, we’ve got to help be better stewards of our own backdoor areas, and go in there and help the watersheds recover.”
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