TALPA, N.M. (AP) – It was a scenic day in Talpa, a small village in Taos County, and that concerned Darryl Maestas.
The sky was blue, temperatures were warm and a slight breeze moved through the valley. Meanwhile, the clear waters of the Acequia Madre del Rio Chiquito, one of dozens of acequias in Taos County, trickled by slowly.
For Maestas, whose family has helped maintain the acequia for generations, these conditions create a perfect storm ahead of what’s predicted to be a brutal year for New Mexico’s beloved acequias.
New Mexico’s acequia system consists of several hundred human-made waterways that use gravity to transport water for local farmers to irrigate their fields. It’s been in place for centuries; many farmers and ranchers in northern New Mexico rely on it for their crops and rangeland.
But, as the region suffers from months of extreme drought with little sign of relief, those reliant on acequias are worried how long the water will last this season. Many, as a result, are choosing to adapt.
That includes Maestas, who said changing patterns in the water are becoming more regular. He looked down one of the acequia’s main diversions, clear water rushing to each side.
“It’s getting to be kind of the norm,” Maestas said. “Usually, the norm would be … pretty dirty (water), and a lot more of it.”
Dirty water is a good sign of snow runoff, something Maestas said could be seriously lacking this year. He pointed to the dry brown hills surrounding the acequias, which typically still have traces of snow in early April.
“I don’t think it’s very good,” he said of the snowpack.
New Mexico saw a below-average monsoon in 2020, traditionally the area’s wettest time of year, and a warm spring has cast doubt on just how long some snowpacks will last.
About 54% of the state was in the most severe “exceptional” drought category, including a large swath of northern New Mexico.
Lack of snowpackLast year was difficult for many acequias. A traditional acequia season usually lasts from April to October, but last year many lasted only about half that time.
“It was really probably the beginning of July that people weren’t being able to irrigate any more,” said Judy Torres, executive director of the Taos Valley Acequia Association.
It’s also forced many parsiantes – farmers who use acequias – to start their traditional cleanup days sooner than normal.
Cleanup days are held before the season and involve community members gathering to clear the acequia of garbage, dirt and anything else that could impede the water. For acequias, often steeped in tradition dating back hundreds of years, cleanup days are an important mile marker in a season.
But, with human-caused climate change melting snowpacks earlier, parsiantes have been forced to start their cleanup process sooner. Torres said that, for the past 10 years, cleanup dates have been moved up and that not every acequia is keeping pace.
“There are a lot of acequias that are barely doing it,” she said. “My fear is they’re going to lose the runoff, they’re not going to catch as much water as they should.”
Adapting to changeThe new difficulties facing acequias are not Taos County’s alone. New Mexico Acequia Association Executive Director Paula Garcia said acequias have withstood droughts before, but this time the problem is even more pronounced.
On her land in Mora County, Garcia’s field used to yield around 1,000 bales of alfalfa. However, last year, she got only 80 bales and is expecting similar numbers for 2021.
“Our entire existence and the land are based on a different weather pattern,” Garcia said. “Some people, their crops don’t make it through the year.”
Garcia said she’s worried that relations between those using acequias will become strained as less and less water flows through the system, a difficult reality for a system that relies on cooperation and sharing between owners.
“It creates tensions in communities when there’s scarcity,” she said.
She said it’s forcing many farmers to rethink how acequias have been run for generations, not an easy task for a system so entrenched in tradition.
One of those farmers is Ralph Vigil of Pecos. Unlike parsiantes up north, his acequia hasn’t seen any water yet, and he doesn’t expect that to change until the end of April.
While many don’t rely on their acequias for personal income, Vigil does, and that has him thinking of new ways to preserve the health of his fields and his acequia. His family has been using acequias to farm his land since the 1800s.
Many acequias operate on a flood irrigation system, where water is diverted into fields and spread out over a wide area. But Vigil has begun using drip irrigation from a filter extending from the acequia, which allows him to water more frequently and with less water at a time.
“I’m definitely changing my practices, starting this year,” he said. “Acequia farms in general, I think, would benefit from changing the way we do business.”
With acequia seasons becoming shorter, Vigil said more farmers might start switching to wells for their water or some might even stop farming altogether. A lack of water can go hand-in-hand with younger generations losing interest in acequias.
“I’ve seen several acequias almost just die out,” he said.
Drought doldrumsDroughts also serve as deterrents for new farmers looking to enter the agricultural business.
Back in Talpa, Maestas said more fields are becoming fallow as older landowners pass away and young generations decide not to use them.
He helped launch the Brown to Green Initiative, which seeks to rehabilitate fallowed farmland in the area so it can be used again. But severe droughts can dampen what progress is made. Maestas said they tried to help someone start farming last year until the drought took full effect.
“You get somebody to come up with $1,000 and you put $1,000 into the ground, and then you have a drought,” he said. “Basically, all that’s for naught.”
But droughts can also spur more interest in acequias as residents take notice of decreased water flows.
“People were used to seeing the water just running all the time,” Maestas said. “Now, we’ve had a couple of seasons where it’s like, ‘Oh, the ditch dried up.’”
Those involved agree the acequia system can withstand the current drought, but how it will look on the other side is another question.
“It’s gonna take a major wave to be ready for the changes that we’re starting to see with climate change,” Garcia said.