February 2013

Ongoing Research Illustrates Benefits of Acequias


Quita Ortiz

For the past decade, Dr. Sam Fernald, a watershed management professor in the Range Sciences Department at New Mexico State University, has led an effort to research acequias, NM’s centuries-old irrigation and water governance system, in the community of Alcalde in Río Arriba County—specifically the hydrology characteristics of acequias and how they interact with shallow groundwater. In recent years a land-use-change analysis was incorporated into Dr. Fernald’s research to gain a better understanding of how land-use change can impact water management, riparian ecosystems and acequia culture. Acequias are at particular risk due to increasing urbanization pressures and the potential impacts on actual water use, water quality and vegetation along irrigation ditches and streams.

Dr. Fernald’s early hydrology studies were promising for acequias, indicating a reciprocal relationship between flood irrigating and groundwater recharge as well as benefits to riparian vegetation and diversification of wildlife habitat.

Fernald has obtained funds to expand his research from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a four-year multidisciplinary effort to model the sustainability of acequias. This study views acequias as holistic systems that link water, environment and cultural livelihood. Fernald aims to understand how and why acequias have remained resilient in the face of urbanization, ever-increasing water demands and climate change. Project partners include NMSU, UNM, New Mexico Tech, Sandia Laboratories and the NM Acequia Association (NMAA).

The human aspect of acequias has become an important part of this study, as researchers view acequias as sustainable water management systems. They’re being researched on a larger geographic scale by establishing the link between the valleys that acequias irrigate and their upland watershed; not only as the source of water, but also taking into account the land base from which acequia users harvest timber and graze livestock.

The current research effort, now in its third year, expanded the study site from Alcalde to also include acequias along the El Rito (Río Chama tributary) and Río Hondo (Río Grande tributary) stream systems in north-central NM. All three sites support acequia-related activities, but differ in their physical geography, water availability and spatial patterns, such as proximity to urban centers.

Threats to acequia communities that have been identified include population growth, climate change and policies that regulate land and water resources. Acequias have a good track record for their ability to adapt to changes that have been induced, largely by urbanization and modified economic structures. But they are now facing increasingly intensive and complex challenges, including prolonged drought and determined water markets aimed at transferring water out of rural communities for other uses.

Initial Findings

Using different modeling approaches, the hydrology results show that seepage from earthen ditches and field percolation recharge the shallow aquifer. This, in turn, becomes groundwater flow for future use as it holds the water upstream for a longer period. Floodplain models indicate that groundwater recharge would be affected if earthen canals and their related activities were eliminated, reducing overall aquifer recharge. So even though there are technologies that are intended to conserve water, they don’t address the fact that there’s a key connection between surface and groundwater supplies. Drip irrigation, for example, might conserve upfront water use, but it’s also allowing more water to run downstream sooner.

Dr. José Rivera, a UNM professor at the School of Architecture and Planning, has led the socio-cultural research surrounding this study, assisted by retired UNM professor, Dr. Sylvia Rodriguez and the NM Acequia Association staff. Focus groups were conducted in summer 2012 at the study sites. They gleaned a wealth of data surrounding acequia water-sharing and distribution customs; water governance; food, seed and agriculture traditions; land-use and land-ownership trends; livestock and ranching trends; and mutualism, which involves community cohesion such as shared cultural values and participation in other community endeavors (for example, livestock associations and mutual domestic water associations). In other words, this facet of the research attempts to understand why acequias maintain their traditions despite the many external forces working against rural livelihoods.

Other data that were incorporated into this study include economics and land use. Future steps include integrating all of the quantifiable data into a model, which can then simulate different scenarios that may impact the sustainability of acequias. The two major stressors, population growth and climate change, will determine the amount of stress that would impose irreversible impacts to the entire system. Hopefully, this data will provide acequias with a framework that assists them in recognizing steps to help evade potential negative scenarios, as well as to identify strategies for adaptation to ongoing changes in the areas of economics, resource policy and climate change.

From an academic perspective, we’re beginning to understand the relationship between acequia irrigation ditches and the natural environment at the regional watershed scale. Most acequia research endeavors to date have been segregated into different fields—policy, local water governance, water rights adjudication, water transfers, land use change, agricultural economics, etc. However, Fernald’s study is the first in NM that views acequias as the complex system that they are. An acequia is not simply an irrigation ditch; rather, it represents a multifaceted system characterized by humans who have historically worked with the environment in a sustainable manner by combining water governance, agriculture, resource management and cultural identity.

Global Acequia Symposium

As part of this NSF-funded research effort, on March 2 and 3, the group will host a symposium, coordinated by Dr. Sylvia Rodriguez, on Acequias and the Future of Resilience in Global Perspective. It will bring together scholars from around the world to share research on similar human-environment systems. The symposium will be followed by a workshop featuring panelists who are working on acequia issues in NM to discuss the future steps that are necessary regarding research and policy to ensure ongoing acequia resiliency. It will be held at the Las Cruces Convention Center. To register, visit http://globalperspectives2013.wrri.nmsu.edu/ If you have questions about this event or the research project, contact the NMAA: 505.995.9644, www.lasacequias.org

Quita Ortiz is the NM Acequia Association’s Communications & Project Specialist. quita@lasacequias.org

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