COVID-19 challenges annual ditch cleanings
By Jesse Moya
Originally Posted April 2, 2020 by Taos News
For hundreds of years, Taoseños have embraced the annual tradition of cleaning the acequias for the spring.
The runoff from melting winter snowpacks in the mountains brings the water needed to grow countless crops across the county, which people use to feed both themselves and the community. This year, concerns and mandates over the COVID-19 pandemic could hinder that process and change the tradition for the time being.
"We have to do it," said Larry Mondragon of the Acequia del Finado Francisco Martinez del Llano Quemado.
Every year, Mondragon said around 70 people gather to clean the 5-mile ditch, usually working in a long line section by section. But this year's emergency has changed the way cleaning is done.
In the past, the members of the ditch would gather with shovels and pitchforks to clean the debris out of the entire waterway together. After less than two days of work, the ditch would be cleaned and water could flow through without causing a blockage.
This year, Monddragon said the mayordomos are encouraging each property owner to clean their own section of ditch to adhere to the emergency guidelines set down by the state.
"Its kind of sad but we have to go on and I just tell everyone that if the good Lord is willing we will go back to the traditional way of cleaning in groups," Mondragon said.
Mondragon's message was clear - the work must be done. Some of the ditches in Taos have been running since the 1700s and have been cleaned nearly every year since water first touched them.
"Spring runoff has begun and I would encourage all citizens to participate in repairing their acequias during the annual limpia and consider planting kitchen gardens," said town councilor George "Fritz" Hahn.
The New Mexico Acequia Association has sent out a newsletter to their parciantes and has laid out guidelines for the annual cleanings and how to proceed during the restrictions on groups imposed by the state Department of Health and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to slow the spread of coronavirus infections.
Gatherings of any kind are limited to no more than five people and even then they are urged to stay 6 feet apart from each other.
The association is recommending each irrigation ditch cancel ditch cleanings or postpone them as long as possible.
"The man power is going to be cut down and the concentration is going to be fighting to keep people separated as much as possible," said Nick Romero of the Acequia Madre Norte del Cañón.
Romero said he plans to keep the workers in three groups and is going to instruct them to be at least 10 feet apart during the cleanings.
"Within your small work crews, maintain a distance of at least 6 feet or maintain a distance of more than 6 feet and completely avoid person-to-person contact," the letter reads.
If work is needed immediately, the association is encouraging members to adhere to the governor's guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus.
While staying safe, it is also important for people to grow some of their own food during the ongoing closures - a way for people to safely feed themselves and their families.
"It's so important right now that people grow and people plant," said Taos Mayor Dan Barrone.
Acquias around the state have been sending their parciantes a list of guidelines to follow since there are some ditches across the state where work must be done. Those older than 70 are discouraged from cleaning this year as well as those who have compromised immune systems.
This year, Mondragon said the water will start to flow on April 11, pandemic or not. About 200 people depend on the water from the Acequia del Finado Francisco Martinez del Llano Quemado. Romero said his ditch could go a year without a cleaning, but some people need the work and he plans to have crews working hard within the guidelines of the state.
Most cleanings around Taos take place between March and April. The current state of emergency and restrictions is to be revisited by the town every 30 days for evaluation.
Jesse Moya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org