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Decade-long study reveals resilience of New Mexico acequias

December 24, 2020 GMT

ALCALDE, N.M. (AP) — Culture and community are as much a part of the centuries-old traditional irrigation systems that some New Mexicans rely on as hydrology, according to researchers at the state’s two largest universities and Sandia National Laboratories.

They made public their findings this week. Funded by a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the decade-long effort centered on three acequia systems in northern New Mexico — El Rito, Rio Hondo and Alcalde systems.

“We wanted to understand the many facets involved in the operation of these systems and what contributes to their resiliency, not just the hydrology,” said Sam Fernald, a professor at New Mexico State University. “I think we found out some of those, including the importance of the culture of the community.”

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Owned and managed by self-organized farmers, the community-based flood irrigation systems deliver water to sustain agriculture during scarce or uneven yearly rainfall. The New Mexico Acequia Association estimates 640 small-scale systems exist throughout New Mexico.

The researchers learned that the acequia system creates a responsive mechanism for the entire community to interact with the landscape and develop a specific water management approach.

“As the neighbors work together to maintain the ditches, a cultural aspect develops that provides cohesion for the community,” said Steve Guldan, an NMSU professor and superintendent of the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde.

The researchers also reported that acequias are adaptable. For example, if it’s a dry year with little water available, the acequia commissions are able to keep the ecosystem alive. During wet years, they’re able to expand the community’s irrigated footprint.

The team of nearly 20 scientists considered everything from hydrology and ecology to rangeland management, agricultural economics and anthropology. David Archuleta, an Alcalde community member and farm supervisor of NMSU’s science center, gained the trust of the local farmers so the team could access their properties for various studies.

They also had group meetings with the farmers and produced a 90-page publication that detailed the findings. Luis Pablo Martínez Sanmartín of Spain, one of the leading acequia historians, wrote the foreword.

The report was presented during the New Mexico Acequia Association’s annual meeting in December.

“We didn’t want to just get the data and leave,” Fernald said. “We wanted to give the results back to the communities that helped us with the research.”

The researchers also said the publication can be a tool for legislators and policymakers when making decisions that might affect the irrigation systems.

Scientists with Sandia Labs have brought all the data together in integrated models that will provide a framework for ongoing studies.