The Impacts of 2011-2012 Fires

and 2013 Floods

 

Serafina Lombardi

 

Last year our New Mexico landscape experienced record drought, our earliest wildfires ever, and then record rainfall. All of these weather patterns affected one another and multiplied impacts.

Many of us spent the summer praying for rain, watching crops and pasture suffer with little humidity in the air and acequias running low—if at all. At the zenith of high temperatures and no precipitation, on June 25, 2013, the USDA Drought Monitor reported 44.8 percent of New Mexico was in exceptional drought, with nearly all of the remainder of the state in extreme drought. (The numbers were similar throughout June and July.) Then, in mid-September all those prayers burst forth into record rains, with the National Weather Service calling September a historic month. Nearly the entire state received above-normal to record-breaking precipitation, with much of New Mexico receiving 150-600 percent of the normal amount. Before 2013 came to a close the Weather Channel named New Mexico the most extreme weather state of the year.

Some started asking, “Is the drought over?” Others were reminded that the work of acequieros and agriculturalists is not only adapting to drought, it is adapting to extreme weather patterns that defy the rhythms of Mother Nature with which we have learned to work.

For acequia farmers and ranchers across the state, for many of whom the acequias are their only non-rain form of irrigation, the effects of the drought were devastating, with some ranchers in Mora and San Miguel counties seeing established pasture grass wither and die. When the rains came it was too late. Though they reported lush green fields, it was with annual weeds—not offering the same erosion protection, soil-building or animal-nourishing properties.

Due to the drought, over the last year ranchers across the state sold off 20 percent of their cattle. Acequias on the Río Mimbres and the Upper Hondo Watershed Water Users Association reported that some ranchers made herd reductions of 70-80 percent.

Many acequias had reduced flows, leading to shortened irrigation seasons, with priority being given to gardens—meaning that pastures might not get irrigated. There were long gaps in the availability of water. This translated into many farmers reducing their plantings and not doing regular succession plantings, threatening both their livelihood and local food security. At the same time many communities got creative about water-sharing and conservation techniques, drawing on traditional wisdom and some modern technology.

Then came the rains—pouring down on dry land unable to absorb the sky’s bounty. Again, across the state we saw severe flooding and erosion, causing enough damage for Gov. Martinez to declare a state of disaster, making funding available for repairs.

One of the overburdened recipients of these rains of biblical proportions was the Acequia Portero of Chimayó in Santa Fe County. On the morning of Sept. 15, mayordomo Mike Lamb went to inspect the damage and submitted the photo below as a testament to the silting the ditch experienced. Mr. Lamb, without a backhoe, young people to assist, or funds on hand, and being a very proactive mayordomo, got in touch with Santa Fe County’s emergency manager, who advised him on the process of applying for the emergency funds.

Some acequias in Las Vegas were left underwater, so assessments couldn’t be made immediately. They had to wait days until they determined that there was significant damage to culverts, diversion dams and lots of silting. Additionally, a levee broke along the canal that delivers floodwater to Storrie Lake, which initially prevented a much-needed water capture opportunity, and created flood damage. It was later repaired.

A key connection between drought and flood is erosion—the run-off of soil that creates water pollution and makes earth disappear from where it belongs. Flooding is exacerbated by dry un-vegetated soils that can repel water rather than absorb it. An important action that can be taken to reduce flood impacts is to reinvest in our upper watersheds that have been depleted and diminished by fire, mismanagement and other factors. Restoring and rebuilding our upper watersheds will help us retain life-giving water and minimize future impacts of drought and heavy rains.

As acequiero farmers and ranchers prepare for the 2014 season we will need to be planning, not only for drought, but also for flooding in our communities and properties.

 

 

Serafina Lombardi is a farmer/rancher specialist for the New Mexico Acequia Association, where she does community outreach to farmers and ranchers. Additionally, she serves on the board of the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market.

 

 

Sidebar:

 

Farming in Drought Among Annual Organic Farming Conference Topics

Drought is the big topic on the minds of agricultural producers. Without good snowpack this winter, farmers face exceptional irrigation shortages. Farming in drought will be a new category of topics among the 36 sessions at this year’s New Mexico Organic Farming Conference, Feb. 14-15, at the Marriott Albuquerque Pyramid North.

This is the largest and most diverse agriculture conference held in New Mexico,” said Joanie Quinn, NM Department of Agriculture’s organic commodity adviser and conference coordinator. The event is organized by NMDA, Farm to Table and NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service.

Keynote speaker Margaret Hiza Redsteer, a climate change research scientist with the US Geological Survey, will open the conference, explaining what farmers and ranchers in the Southwest can expect. Other drought topics will include: managing soil salinity, water harvesting for farmers, grazing management in times of drought, understanding your water rights, land restoration, and new alternative crops. Some of the presenters: organic soil guru Ron Godin of Colorado State University; Billy Kniffen, Texas AgriLife Extension’s retired water resource specialist; Frank Aragona, director of programs at Holistic Management International; Molly Walton of Quivira Coalition, a representative of the State Engineer, and authors Gary Nabhan and Helen Atthowe.

Registration for both days is $100 per person, and for single-day entrance, $65. Early registration may be done online at www.farmtotablenm.org