Tag Archives: Acequias

Cities not Farmers, have most of the water stored along Rio Grande

Cities not Farmers, have most of the water stored along Rio Grande

Written by Santiago Maestas, President
South Valley Regional Association of Acequias

After four years of drought cities in the Rio Grande Valley of central New Mexico have 73% of the water stored in New Mexico reservoirs: Heron, El Vado, and Abiquiu. The water stored at Cochiti is not available for agriculture or domestic and commercial purposes other than recreation. According to the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Reclamation most recent Reservoir Storage Status report to the Board of Directors of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

As of June 20th all the watershed basins in New Mexico have melted out and native flows in the Rio Grande have slowed to the point that MRGCD water bank irrigators, who sold their water rights to cities and industry, have had the water cut off. The MRGCD has only 12% of the water stored and is now dependent on native flows on the Rio Grande to maintain irrigation for the rest of the season. If monsoon rains don’t deliver as expected irrigation will be curtailed for the remaining farmers except for the pueblos.

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority has most of the stored water 63% due to years of not using its annual water allocation of San Juan Chama diversion water; however, for the past 2 years since they started the Drinking Water Project they also have not been able to use their full allocation due to low river flows and have had to resort to pumping the Rio Grande basin aquifer again to meet customer demands.

Farmers and the Bosque do not have this option. As the Rio Grande dries up both the Rio Grande farmer and the endangered species that inhabit the Bosque are being threatened with extinction while cities continue to grow and consume more water.




Santolina Master Plan Threatens South and North Valley Acequias


The Santolina Development, if approved, would cover more than 13,700 acres of undeveloped land in the southwest portion of Bernalillo County. The plan area is bounded by I-40 to the north, 118th Street and the open space to the east, the Pajarito Mesa on the south, and the area adjacent to the Rio Puerco Valley on the west (Bernalillo County). This entire area, at present, has NO water rights. If this development were to be approved, the water it needs could only be provided by taking it from others, i.e. – Acequias. There is NO available water in the Rio Grande basin.

Brief Acequia History 

New Mexico is a place filled with a unique culture and connection to land and water. It is common for communities to hold a strong sense of place-based knowledge. Here, Acequias play an important role in this traditional knowledge. Acequias are hand-dug irrigation ditches that are one of the oldest water management systems in the United States that dates back to New Spain. This irrigation technology connects New Spain’s framework of water systems to the irrigation technologies from Pueblo Indians. Acequias were created to incorporate water into dry land farming, and their dependence on snowmelt from the mountains make it possible to irrigate crops (Rivera 2). Since water is a vital component to life, it is important to not only highlight the economic fruit that comes from these ancient systems, but also their cultural importance

Definition of Acequia

La Acequia: The acequia has both a physical and a social definition. The world acequia refers to the water canal that carries irrigation water from the river to fields and refers to the irrigation infrastructure along the way. The word acequia also refers to the community of families who use the acequia for irrigation. For example, one would say, “I belong to the Acequia del Monte.” (Lopez 10)


What is the Importance of Acequias?

Acequias hold great cultural and political importance to the community, because they are one of the oldest forms of self-government. Water governance by acequias is rooted in the fundamental principle that water is essential to all life and it has to be shared for the common good. These principles have been customary in the survival of water-scarce landscapes so that future generations can sow the benefits. Acequias also make it possible to cultivate locally-grown food. “They are a place-based knowledge of watershed, interconnected with food traditions, community and culture.”(Rivera, A Brief History 9) A limpia, or a ritual of cleaning the ditches, usually takes place at the beginning of spring and allows for community members to clear debris from the ditches while renewing their strong attachment to their locality in order to prepare for another year of irrigation and community connection. (Rivera, A Brief History 9) These ancient systems not only help communities connect to land and water but are vital building blocks to the local food system, healthy ecosystems and sustainable futures.

Benefits of Acequias

  • Recharge the Aquifer
  • Maintain healthy connection to land and water
  • Community and capacity building
  • Maintain the possibility to cultivate locally grown food

Do Acequias Have Rights?

Yes. Acequias have ownership of 46,272ac-ft of water in the Middle Rio Grande Basin.(SVRAA.) A “transfer” of a water right is the shifting of an existing water right to a new location or a new use or a new point of diversion. When a water right simply changes owners but the water right is not moved from the land or changed in any way, that is not considered a “transfer” and no permission is required. For example, if a piece of irrigated land is sold to a new owner and the water right remains in place with the land, this is not considered a “transfer”. (SVRAA)

“There are no longer ‘surplus waters’ in our streams or reservoirs to apply for. This has created a demand for transferring water rights by those who do not own water rights and want to have water for use in a particular location. Growing cities and developers increasingly want to transfer water rights for new development. On the other hand, people living in rural communities, who have water rights, understand that their communities will not survive or have good options for their future if they allow water rights to be exported from their communities.”


Challenges for Acequias

  • Sub Development and Urban encroachment
  • Drought
  • Population growth
  • Loss of culture and traditions
  • Loss of land and water rights
  • Lack of education related to acequia culture and history

According to a study by the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business from New Mexico State University, it is proposed that “shrinking surface water supplies and rising population will increase competition for water and raise the economic pressure to transfer water from agricultural to urban and industrial users.” (Hurd 3)

It is imperative that acequias are at the forefront of dialogues pertaining to water, since they are one of the oldest water systems in the Southwest and hold a strong significance to the community of the South Valley.

How Would Future Developments Pressure the Local Acequia Systems?

The Santolina Master Plan, as projected, would have a total demand of 38.7 million gallons per day. That would be 43,350 acre-feet a year (Santolina Master Plan, p.14). The San Juan Chama project water allocated to ALL of Albuquerque is 48,000 acre-feet. However, the projected demand by 2030 is illustrated in the summary below.

Municipality Vested Rights in Rio Grande San Juan-Chama Project Contract Estimated Demand in 2030 Excess Demand in 2030
Albuquerque 21,848 ac-ft/yr 48,200 ac-ft/yr 116,650 ac-ft/yr 46,602 ac-ft/yr

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) has projected an “Excess Demand in 2030” of 46,602 ac-ft/yr, and that does NOT include the 43,350 ac-ft/year that The Santolina Development is projecting for its development over the next 40-50 years (Santolina Master Plan, p.11).

If the Santolina Master Plan is approved, it is likely that Acequias who have ‘vested’ pre-1907 water rights would be threatened. The South Valley Regional Association of Acequias are concerned that this development would seek to acquire and “retire,” or to transfer acequia Pre-1907 water rights from irrigated lands in the Middle Rio Grande Administrative Area (MRGA) to satisfy the conditions of approval for the ABCWUA ground water permit RG-960.

Is The Santolina Development Sustainable?

The Santolina Master Plan proposes a watershed problem not only for Acequias of the North and South Valley, but also for the greater Albuquerque area. As population increases and surface water becomes scarce, sub-developments like Santolina pose the question of whether large urban areas of this magnitude outside the established boundaries of the present utility service area would be sustainable. A development like this will not only threaten the cultural, historic and natural tapestry of the Acequias in the valley de Atrisco, but also threaten water availability to the community as a whole

Sonora R. Rodriquez, CESOSS Future Community Leader

Santiago James Maestas, CESOSS Board & Executive Committee Member

Produced for the Spring 2014 “Cultivando Nuestro Futuro” Leadership Institute/Center for Social Sustainable Systems

Sponsored by the New Mexico Acequia Association

*For a copy of the full document, please contact CESOSS at cesoss2004@gmail.com