Congreso de las Acequias sets path forward
By Meg Scherch Peterson For the Taos News
Originally posted Dec 18, 2020 Updated Dec 18, 2020
In the same week that saw Wall Street for the first time trade water futures as a commodity (like gold or soybeans), the annual meeting via Zoom on Saturday (Dec. 12) of Congreso de las Acequias stood in stark contrast.
The Congreso – a gathering and governing body of the New Mexico Acequia Association – made no mention of Wall Street.
Instead, its themes of community, relationship, respect, tradition, gratitude, the values of farming and ranching, and the sacredness of water ran like a meandering río through the meeting’s morning and afternoon presentations.
“El Agua es la Vida” (Water is Life) was a continuing refrain.
New Mexico’s acequias comprise a centuries-old system of irrigation ditches. But they represent more than a water-delivery mechanism.
“Acequias are integral to who Taoseños and Nuevomexicanos in general feel themselves to be as a land-based people, key to their querencia (love of place). Acequias are a precious, irreplaceable part of what it once meant, now means, will mean to live in this place,” wrote Sylvia Rodriguez in her recent Taos News column.
Rodriguez, an anthropologist, historian, acequia commissioner and board member of Taos Valley Acequia Association, was among the nearly 130 attendees, which included about 10 from Taos.
One of the declarations about water passed by the Congreso took a direct stand against water being bought and sold like any other commodity.
The Declaration on Water, Food, and Youth was read by Dixon artist, musician and parciante (acequia member) Sylvia Vergara, Don Bustos, a farmer from Santa Cruz, and Anastasia Santistevan, a young parciante from Taos.
It stated, “Our acequia movement is dedicated to protecting land and water from the pressures of development and urbanization by resisting the commodification of water. We continue to defend acequias from the detrimental impacts of water transfers by strengthening self-governance and capacity for local community organizing.”
Echoing those sentiments, NMAA president Harold Trujillo said, “Water transfers are our Achilles heel.”
Water transfers, which can move water from traditional users and uses – especially the communal water use of traditional and Native people – to more urban and industrial users, are sometimes regarded as part of complex water politics.
Robert “Andy” Martinez, who attended the meeting as a TVAA board member and commissioner on Acequia Madre de la Loma del Ranchitos Abajo, said by email that water transfers will be one of the main challenges for acequias going forward.
That same concern was voiced by TVAA board member Michael Torrez in an email following the meeting.
“Our parciantes (need to) use the water and not sell their water rights. Cities like Albuquerque are looking for ways to buy water rights,” said Torrez, who also serves as president of the Finado Francisco Martinez Ditch and is state president for New Mexico Association of Educational Retirees.
“As our communities continue to grow, they need more water. We have to protect surface water rights and our underground water,” he said.
But the first challenge going forward may be surviving drought conditions, which Martinez described as “persistent over the last three years.”
While Congreso 2020 was buoyed by an exuberance of traditional songs, prayer and videos and photographs of acequia culture, it was also a meeting of governance.
Resolutions were passed about the impact of drought, specific water rights transfers, traditional use access to public lands, and other issues.
Senate-elect Ben Ray Luján spoke to attendees and tackled head-on a brewing controversy about farmers and ranchers qualifying for disaster assistance due to drought.
After joking that it was possible he may be the first parciante ever to be a United States senator-elect, Luján addressed recent decisions by the New Mexico Farm Service Agency that denied some Río Arriba farmers and ranchers access to disaster assistance.
This was a bad decision,” said Luján. And he said he was getting it fixed.
Paula Garcia, NMAA executive director, said in a telephone interview following the Congreso that the community needs disaster assistance.
“The FSA seems to be making it more difficult for farmers and ranchers to participate in programs that are designed to support them,” she said.
Luján explained the importance to acequias of the Land Grant-Mercedes Traditional Use Recognition and Consultation Act, a bill he sponsored that was also co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, Democrat.
The Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month, was proposed as a way of helping land grant and acequia communities retain access to public lands for traditional uses, including acequia repair and maintenance. After passage in the House, the bill went to the U.S. Senate on Dec. 7.
New Mexico State Senator Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales also briefly joined via Zoom. Gonzales shared the words of Luján’s father, the late Ben Luján: “Bobby, we always have to be alert when it comes to the acequias.”
Gonzales repeated that admonition several times.
“Be alert,” he said.