Federal disaster recovery aid for acequias in southern NM depends on officials paying upfront

Using lessons learned from 2022 disaster season, state transportation agency wants to create a relief plan for the future

By: - July 12, 2023 4:35 am
A dog sniffs the ground near where a path used to be, now covered up with leaves and other debris.

The path where water normally flows in spring is covered in leaves and debris after the Black Fire and flooding in southern New Mexico. Pictured in December 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Historic acequias in southern New Mexico are still recovering from the fires and floods disrupting life since the Black Fire in 2022.

A new source of federal help could be available for acequia stewards in southern New Mexico. That money is dependent on local counties and districts finding some dollars on their own to cover 25% of costs to even qualify, experts told the New Mexico interim Water and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday. 

The Black Fire

The Black Fire burned over 325,000 acres in the Gila National Forest in 2022. It was the second-largest fire in the state’s history. Flooding that followed the wildfire damaged Grant, Sierra, Catron and Hidalgo Counties. 

Acequia stewards monitor and maintain historic irrigation channels across New Mexico, mostly on a volunteer basis. Many of these spaces suffered heavy damage from the fire and subsequent floods.

The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service has an emergency watershed protection program meant to help communities recover from disasters like the fires and floods New Mexico had in 2022.

The agency offers assistance in cleaning up debris and preventing future soil erosion or flooding.

Those affected by the state’s disasters in 2022 are eligible under a waiver for the program, which normally only covers land with property like houses or other built structures.

State lawmakers on the committee heard about this program on Tuesday from Kenneth Branch, assistant state conservationist for the federal Natural Conservation Resources Service. He said southern New Mexico acequia communities, which could use this sort of aid, want to get work done through the program.

However, the acequia stewards need help to pay some upfront costs.

The federal conservation program covers a majority of funding for any approved assistance requests and requires that a sponsor like a local county or city pay for a quarter of the work.

Branch said Grant County and the Sierra Soil and Water Conservation District agreed to sponsor the acequias. He said those local officials are now trying to scrounge together the necessary funds.

A spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Agriculture said those sponsors have to cover over $70,000, which is 25% of the total $287,560 that the program would cost.

“They’re willing to help the acequias, but they need to find that match on the back end,” Branch said.

Paula Garcia is the executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. Previously, no entities had stepped up to sponsor the program for the Black Fire acequia victims because nobody could find the money, she said, leading to a gap in providing services to southern New Mexico acequias.

“There’s no reason why Black Fire (victims) shouldn’t be able to get some support,” she said.

Branch said the federal natural resources agency is currently taking applications for the emergency watershed program.

No acequias affected by the Black Fire have applied yet, Garcia said. 

Garcia said 52 acequias in northern New Mexico recovering from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire — a 2022 wildfire, the largest in state history — have already applied to be part of the watershed program.

It’s not as challenging for those stewards, she said, because the federal government is picking up the full tab for the damage from the disaster that the U.S. Forest Service caused, and thus, has money to cover upfront costs the southern New Mexico stewards need to raise.

Learning lessons

In February, the New Mexico Department of Transportation removed debris from acequias in southern New Mexico. The agency also got work done in the northern part of the state.

Garcia made a proposal to the state’s interim Water and Natural Resources Committee that the state could formalize an acequia disaster recovery process for future reference based on that work. She said it could be an inter-agency process so it’s not always dependent on the transportation agency.

John Romero, a director at the state’s transportation department, said that’s a good idea. He said his agency developed the process to help the disaster-ridden acequias on the fly but it worked well.

“This has been a tremendous learning lesson for a lot of us,” Romero said.

Similar to Garcia, he said guidelines should be developed at a state level so this repair work can be a model for future disasters.

“So when this happens, we know exactly where to mobilize, how we do things,” he said. “And that way, we can be even more nimble for any future disasters that may occur.”

Romero said it would also be helpful for the state to give its transportation department more authority to support acequias in disaster recovery. He said the agency has to sign agreements with every single acequia currently to get work done, but the state could allow the transportation department to bypass that.

“This would help us to be more efficient,” he said.

It’s difficult for the state to even track all the acequias across New Mexico and their information. Garcia is working with state officials to create a map of all the systems, something that the 2022 disasters boosted a need for.

Garcia told lawmakers her association has mapped and inventoried 75 acequias damaged by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. She said they’ve gotten that same work done for 20 acequias hit by the Black Fire.


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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.