A water transfer is the change of a water right from an existing use to a different use. For the past two generations, acequia leaders have been at the forefront of raising concerns about the impacts of water transfers on agricultural communities. In New Mexico, practically all water in the state is appropriated through a system of water rights administered by the State Engineer. Because water is fully appropriated, any new use comes at the expense of an existing use through the transfer of a water right through a process regulated by New Mexico water law.
As the population of the New Mexico grows, especially in the urban areas, the demand increases to move water from irrigation to urban or other uses, and pressures are mounting on acequias and other agricultural uses. A common assumption is that water for expanding residential, commercial or industrial uses will be transferred from agriculture. A typical example of a water transfer is moving a water right from an agricultural field irrigated with surface water to a groundwater well that provides water for a municipality or industry.
Since the 1907 water code was enacted and codified into state law, water rights have been defined as transferable property rights. Water transfers raise questions about the value of water. Acequia leaders have maintained that water is a life-giving common resource intertwined with community well-being, culture, food traditions and the economic viability of local agriculture for families in rural communities. Broadly speaking, historic acequia-based water rights are also vital to long-term water security for possible uses other than agriculture, such as mutual domestic water systems.
Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, acequia leaders expressed concern about water transfers, arguing that if water transfers tend to go toward the entities with the most money, rural communities could be dispossessed of the essential water that keeps them alive. During this time, there were some important protests to water transfers in Ensenada (near Tierra Amarilla), Mora and Anton Chico. A protest is a legal term used to describe the objection to a water transfer in the administrative proceedings of the State Engineer. These early protests also included a high-profile protest of water rights from San Acacia (near Soccoro) to Intel Corporation in Río Rancho. The results were mixed, but it was clear that acequias wanted a place at the table with regard to water-transfer decisions.
NMAA was formed in the late 1980s and served as a vital communications network to resist the growing trend toward the commodification of water in the 1990s. After a multi-year organizing effort, by 2003, NMAA led the passage of new laws that authorized the role of local acequias to determine whether to approve water transfers out of acequias. Prior to having this authority, only the State Engineer could make such a decision.
The rationale for this new governance power for acequias was that it would result in decisions that could better account for the needs of the acequia at the local level. Now that acequias have a say about water transfers, they also play a vital role in shaping the future of their communities in the hope that irrigated agriculture will thrive and that communities can retain local water rights for local community needs.
Acequias: Ancient Water Governance
Other than the indigenous nations and peoples of the Americas, acequias are the oldest form of government in present-day New Mexico and southern Colorado. Given the importance of water to survive in a high desert, it comes as no surprise that this region would be the center of water governance or could even be considered the cradle of water civilization. Acequias are rooted in North African and Iberian water governance traditions brought by settlers during the Spanish and Mexican eras of colonization, but they are also grounded in the ancient water traditions and foodways of the Americas.
Water governance by acequias is rooted in the fundamental principle that water is so essential to all life that it has to be shared for the common good. Often referred to as the repartimiento or reparto, customary water-sharing practices made survival in a water-scarce landscape possible for many generations. Acequia customs of water sharing endure in a way that is unique to each acequia and collectives of neighboring acequias. Much of the day-to-day and season-to-season work of the acequia is concerned with the sharing of scarce water.
Acequias are also defined as local institutions of government in New Mexico. As such, acequias have two articles of state law dedicated to their governance. As public institutions, acequias also are eligible for state funding for their irrigation infrastructure. As local governments, acequias make important decisions about water management and public funds.
The New Mexico Acequia Association established the Acequia Governance Project in 2003 to strengthen acequias in local water governance by working to update their rules of operation or bylaws and by assisting with planning to make improvements to their irrigation infrastructure. To date, the NMAA has worked with over 400 acequias throughout the state and continues to attend numerous acequia meetings to serve as an information resource to acequia parciantes and their elected officials, mayordomos and commissioners. Any acequia or community ditch can contact NMAA for more information about the Acequia Governance Project.