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The Nation

A Cultural Struggle in the Trenches

Agriculture: Drought and development are threats to northern New Mexico's acequia system of irrigation, which keeps a way of life alive.

May 20, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's not just the drought that threatens acequias, it's increasing demand for water; 70% to 80% of New Mexico's surface water is controlled by acequia associations. And with the state's water resources about 21/2 times over-apportioned, it is likely that thirsty cities in northern New Mexico will look to the acequias this summer as a water source for municipal needs.

So-called "water farming," in which cities buy water rights from beleaguered farmers, is a controversial practice in the Southwest, where thousands of acres a year of formerly farmed land lies fallow while its allotment of water flows to encroaching subdivisions.

The New Mexico Acequia Assn., aware of the increasing pressure for water, recently issued a statement of principle: Water belongs to the community and is not an economic commodity to be sold.

But everyone on the ditch knows the value of the water, and everyone knows what a developer would be willing to pay for it. In a drought year, the financial stress on families is enormous, as is the pressure to hold out.

In the curious economics of water, acequia members may be assessed only $1.25 per acre-foot (about 325,640 gallons) per year to draw water from the ditch. A local water broker might offer a member as much as $40,000 for one-time rights to the same amount of water.

"This is northern New Mexico, the poorest region of the country, and people are vulnerable," said David Benavides, a water lawyer who works with acequia groups. "Developers come in and try to buy out the farmers. How can that be good for the community?"

Garcia, making his rounds in his battered pickup, will not allow his acequia to dry up, one way or the other. Like the others along the ditch, his fields need water. He's not doing it for the $300 he's paid a year. "That's not even gas money," he said, laughing.

"The acequia is for the people, that's why I do it. To continue the tradition. Let's hope we can keep our water."

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