Health

Rural New Mexicans meet drought with culture of water sharing

Acequia is the name for a kind of irrigation ditch that rural people rely on to water their farms or orchards in arid New Mexico. But it is also something more. 

“An acequia is a community of people,” says Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. “You have your right to the water, but you also have your responsibilities to the community.”

Why We Wrote This

Drought and climate change pose new challenges to New Mexico’s water supply. But a tradition of shared access – based around irrigation ditches called acequias – continues to thrive.

The system includes centuries-old traditions like the mayordomo, the person elected every few years to manage how much water gets shared and when, and a communal spring cleaning of the ditches.

But climate change means water may grow more scarce. In the community of Placitas this summer, the mayordomo has cut irrigating back from once a week, to once every two weeks, to now once every three weeks.

Ms. Garcia says the water networks are well placed to help New Mexico navigate a drier, thirstier future. Of the roughly 640 acequias in the state, she notes, about 200 of them are improving their infrastructure. She says “they’re not in a state of decline at all. What I’ve observed in the last [few decades] is a resurgence in interest.”

Placitas, N.M.

Carolyn Kennedy can’t hurdle the ditch like she used to. So, on a warm August afternoon, she’s limping home with a twisted ankle.

Muddy and narrow, the ditch – known as an acequia – snakes up the northern slope of the Sandia Mountains in rugged ‘s’ bends. In the three centuries the village of Placitas has occupied these dusty orange hills, the acequia has barely changed. It’s one of the things Ms. Kennedy loves most about it.

But not everything is the same, she acknowledges as she settles into a green couch in the cottage she’s called home for about five decades.

Why We Wrote This

Drought and climate change pose new challenges to New Mexico’s water supply. But a tradition of shared access – based around irrigation ditches called acequias – continues to thrive.

“There used to be water in the ditch all the time,” she says. And not just that, but peach trees, apple orchards, and other produce locals would sell to make a little extra money.

As the rest of the world adopted new water storage and irrigation technologies, these hand-dug and gravity-fed trenches have remained an economic and cultural lifeline for rural New Mexico. In fact they are part of a long line of communities and civilizations to rely on acequias – and, broadly, acequia culture – to survive in some of the planet’s most inhospitable climates.

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