None of the Pajarito Meadows residents expected to go outside and find half the houses flooding one afternoon in early April. Some houses were drenched two to three feet deep in water from the nearby acequia. However, the reason why the acequias overflowed is a different story.
Many acequias in New Mexico are open and running despite having to cancel their community spring cleaning day. As the stay-at-home order continues, cleaning the acequias has been put on hold for many New Mexico communities.
Since acequias are not Albuquerque’s main source of farm water, keeping them clean has become a hassle in some areas.
Sue Johnson, a resident of the south valley Albuquerque neighborhood, barely avoided the flood waters when the rising levels stopped about 20 feet away from her property.
Johnson and her husband Wes, a retired couple in their seventies, live adjacent to the Pajarito Acequia off of Coors Boulevard and Isleta Boulevard. She said the acequia broke on the west side of the bank and the water flooded the nearby houses.
“I was emotional,” she said. “I was scared we were next.”
If you ask Johnson what caused the flooding, she will say it boils down to three key factors:
- It was time to raise the water level.
- The acequias needed repair from damage like gopher holes that deteriorate the bank.
- There was too much trash in the acequias both before and after the flood.
“We’ve seen trash in there after it happened and the last time we walked by my husband... reached down with his arms which I couldn’t believe were long enough, and pulled out the trash,” Johnson said.
Some of the items Johnson said she had seen floating on the acequias range anywhere from plastic bottles to large pieces of packing foam. Since Sue and Wes Johnson do not live next to the acequia or use it for crops, they are not obligated to send any peones (workers) to contribute with the annual acequia cleaning.
Director of the New Mexico Acequia Association Paula Garcia said there are over 700 acequias across 22 counties in New Mexico. Historically, acequias created one of the first forms of government in the area before New Mexico became a U.S. Territory.
It has been a tradition for the communities of each acequia to come together every spring to clean and repair the acequias. The time is known as sacando la acequia which translates to taking out the acequia.
“Sometimes ‘cleaning the acequia’ doesn’t really capture the physical labor of it,” Garcia said. “Over the course of the year, a lot of silt accumulates, and the grass is encroached from the banks, so all of that has to be reopened every year.”
Each landowner with an acequia on their property is called a parciante and they are required to send a certain amount of peones depending on how many acres they have. For Garcia, that means she has to send four people to help work with everyone else during the community cleaning day.
While acequias are commonly used as a major irrigation tool for many Northern New Mexico farms, cleaning them has become a challenge for communities during social distancing regulations instructed by the New Mexico Department of Health.
“Acequias have really taken the public health order very seriously and you know as a state association we got numerous requests for guidance on how to address the local situations,” Garcia said. “I think overall people have taken that responsibility very seriously and we’re doing the very best to be responsible for the wellbeing of the community.”
The New Mexico Acequia Association provided a guidance letter about ways that they could implement the stay at home order. There were two main options that they suggested.
- Mayordomos should cancel the community cleaning day completely
- Any essential cleaning or repairs get completed in small crews of five or less while maintaining a six foot distance from each other.
“What a lot of acequias are doing now is regardless of whether they were able to complete their cleaning, they’re opening up the ditches, they’re starting to flow and of course once they’re flowing it's harder to go in and do maintenance,” Garcia said, “So, I think for the rest of the growing season, folks will have to be vigilant in watching the flow, looking for obstructions and potential problems areas, and then to stay flexible to where if there's a real problem they might have to cut off the flow for a few days and fix the problem before it gets worse.”
Garcia said the flooding on Pajarito Meadows Road is a good example of what can happen if there aren’t enough people to repair the acequias on time.
But for a lot of cases in Albuquerque and downtown Santa Fe, the agricultural land has been covered with houses and the only reason the acequias remain active is for cultural significance according to Sean Paloheimo, the director of operations at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, a museum near Santa Fe.
“I think that each acequia is going to have to be really vigilant in monitoring the flow on their ditch to make sure that in the absence of doing a thorough cleaning that there aren’t any obstructions because sometimes something that doesn’t look like a serious problem initially could become a problem when there's higher zones,” Garcia said.
With a ray of hope, some farmlands have been making a constant effort to preserve the history of agriculture in Santa Fe.
El Rancho de las Golondrinas is a historical museum of agriculture in Santa Fe that is part of the Acequia de la Cienega. Just days before the stay at home order was released, Paloheimo went out to clean their headwaters with a small crew before volunteers came to help on their own time over the weekend.
Each acequia usually has two commissioners and a mayordomo. Paloheimo is one of the commissioners for La Cienega where they try to clean out the acequia twice a year. Paloheimo said they took all the coronavirus safety precautions seriously but still found a way to safely clean out the frontage headwaters of the acequia.
“It’s not necessarily something that you’re right next to each other while you're doing anyway,” Paloheimo said. “You're using the shovel and you’re keeping your distance. I mean basically what we all do is we kind of leapfrog each other. So it’s really not too hard to maintain a six foot distance.”
As the growing season approaches, mayordomos are doing what they can to keep the acequias in good condition. Whether it’s for cultural significance, irrigation of fields or just to prevent them from flooding the neighborhood, the waters will continue to flow.
Daniel Ward is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @wordsofward34