In 2014, the New Mexico Acequia Association is celebrating our 25th anniversary. It is humbling to mention such a milestone when acequias have endured in New Mexico for centuries. Through their long history, acequias have been keepers of tradition, the caretakers of water for growing food, and communities bound together for the common purpose of sharing water. For many generations, acequias have retained a great degree of autonomy in local water governance and have made possible the cultivation of locally grown food. This legacy of place-based knowledge of our watersheds, intertwined with food traditions, community and culture is very much alive in the 21st century.
The efforts of working toward a common purpose began before NMAA was founded, when acequias in various regions banded together for a united legal defense in water-rights adjudication in the 1960s. The first version of NMAA was established in 1990 by acequia leaders concerned primarily about the transfer of water rights out of acequias and attempts to change the use of those water rights away from agriculture to purposes such as subdivisions, resorts and industrial uses. NMAA leaders countered the adage “water flows uphill to money” and reframed the water issue with the statement, “Water is Life.”
By the late 1990s, acequia leaders recognized the importance of structural change in New Mexico water law to enact some protections for acequias. They needed a stronger collective voice in state water policy to have more of a decision-making role in water transfers. The NMAA reinvented the organization in 2000 so that it could serve to collectively advocate for acequias, and created the Congreso de las Acequias, a statewide governing body.
After a two-year statewide organizing effort, the NMAA led the passage of new laws to regulate water transfers and protect water rights from loss for non-use through water banking (both carried by the late Speaker Ben Luján and Sen. Carlos Cisneros). Since then, the NMAA has worked to ensure that acequias have a voice in state water policy. The Acequia Governance Project, dedicated to strengthening acequia governance and implementing new statutory powers of the acequias, was established during this same time frame.
While water was a driving force in uniting acequias for a common purpose, the NMAA also embraced work focused on youth in agriculture through Sembrando Semillas (Cultivating Seeds) and to encourage more people to serve their acequias through the Mayordomo Project. Both of these projects build upon the idea that acequias are not only about water; they are about families, youth, food and people entrusted with responsibilities to care for the acequia. NMAA’s Escuelita de las Acequias (Little School of the Acequias) is an approach to experiential learning where youth and adult leaders find support, inspiration and encouragement to fulfill their devotion to their communities and acequias.
We measure our work in centuries and in decades. It is important to honor the generations who came before us, to keep our acequias flowing, our lands under cultivation, and our waters under the care of local elected officials who have been doing this for the past 400 years. Likewise, in this rapidly changing world, we seek to honor the leaders of recent acequia history of the past 50 years who have devoted most of their lives to the continuation of the tradition. And we intend to encourage and support the current and next generation of acequia leaders. NMAA is working so that the intergenerational leadership of New Mexico’s acequias can look back with respect and look forward with hope that our vision of acequias can become more vibrant.
Paula Garcia is executive director of the NMAA and a Mora County commissioner. She is also president of La Merced de Santa Gertrudis de lo de Mora (Mora Land Grant) and serves on the board of her local regional acequia association, La Asociacion de las Acequias del Valle de Mora. She has worked for many years in areas of land, water and community.
NMAA’s Vision for the Future
Acequias flow with clean water, people work together to grow food, and communities celebrate cultural and spiritual traditions. People honor acequias as part of their heritage and express querencia through a strong connection to land and community. Our communities have an abundance of healthy, locally grown food because we recognize agriculture as a respected and dignified livelihood and way of life.
Guided by our core values, the NMAA grows a movement of people of all ages and walks of life to defend and protect our precious water by resisting its commodification and contamination. Through involvement in NMAA, families and youth are inspired to cultivate the land, care for our acequias and heal injustices. Knowledge and experience about growing food, sharing water and saving seed are passed on from generation to generation.
Ways to Support Acequias and Locally Grown Food
Reduce your water footprint by conserving water and lessening the demand to transfer agricultural water rights. A good resource for water conservation is the New Mexico Water Collaborative (nmwatercollaborative.org).
Buy locally grown food at your local farmers’ market or, increasingly, at local restaurants or grocery stores who purchase from local growers. For a listing of farmers’ markets in New Mexico, visit the website of the New Mexico Farmers’ Marketing Association: www.farmersmarketsnm.org
Join the New Mexico Acequia Association and support programs to protect rural, agricultural water rights, support local acequia leaders, and mentor the next generation of acequia farmers and ranchers. www.lasacequias.org