Drought hits the Southwest, and New Mexico’s canals run dry

By Simon Romero

Nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the remote village of Ledoux has for more than a century relied on a network of irrigation ditches to water its crops. The outpost’s acequias, as New Mexico’s fabled canals are known, are replenished annually by snowmelt and rains. But with the Southwest locked in an unrelenting drought, they have begun to run dry.

“I never thought I’d witness such a crash in our water sources,” said Harold Trujillo, 71, a farmer in Ledoux who has seen his production of hay collapse to about 300 bales a year from 6,000. “I look at the mountains around us and ask: ‘Where’s the snow? Where are the rains?’”

Acequias — pronounced ah-SEH-kee-ahs — borrow their name from the Arabic term for water conduit, al-sāqiya. They are celebrated in song, books and verse, and they have endured in the state for centuries. Spanish colonists in New Mexico began digging the canals in the 1600s, building on water harvesting techniques honed by the Pueblo Indians.

Even then, the acequia reflected the blending of cultural traditions. Muslims introduced acequias in Spain after invading the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century, using gravity to manage irrigation flows. Acequias eventually spread around the Spanish-speaking world.

Making subsistence farming feasible in arid lands, New Mexico’s communally managed acequias persisted through uprisings, epidemics and wars of territorial conquest, preserving a form of small-scale democratic governance that took root before the United States existed as a country.

But in a sign of how climate change has begun to upend farming traditions across the Southwest, the megadrought afflicting New Mexico and neighboring states may amount to the acequias’s biggest challenge yet.

The difficulties confronting farmers in Ledoux — pronounced locally as Leh-DOOKS — exemplify those also facing hundreds of acequias around New Mexico, and a smaller number in southern Colorado and Texas.

Climate researchers say the water shortages vexing the acequias are not surprising after years of warming temperatures, and that the depleted reservoirs and the spread of colossal wildfires around the West are a clear indication of the crisis.

Making matters worse, the monsoon rains that once regularly soaked northern New Mexico failed to materialize last summer. And the snowpack over the winter disappointed once again. Parts of New Mexico, including the area around Ledoux, have received some rain in recent weeks, with more in the forecast this week, but the precipitation has done little to improve abnormally dry conditions.

More than 77% of New Mexico is in severe drought, limiting pasture yields and stunting irrigated crops, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.

Thomas Swetnam, a scientist who studies tree rings to interpret changes in climate, said the drought this century in the Southwest had been so severe and prolonged that its few rivals in the last millennium include a multidecade stretch of an extraordinary drought in the late 16th century.

“This is probably the second-worst drought in 1,200 years,” said Swetnam, a professor emeritus of dendrochronology at the University of Arizona who now lives in New Mexico, where he operates the Jemez Mountains Tree-Ring Lab.

Some acequias, notably those along the Rio Grande, are still delivering water to farmers in a show of resilience. But many acequias with other water sources, like lakes or small tributaries, are taking a direct hit.

The drought, Trujillo said, had also escalated a decadeslong exodus from Ledoux to larger towns and cities. Ruins of adobe homes are scattered around the village’s old Catholic church, giving parts of Ledoux the feel of a ghost town.

Paula Garcia, who was raised on a ranch in northern New Mexico, said she had seen the drying trend grow worse over her lifetime. Mora, the town where she lives, was once a thriving farming outpost.

Now, she said, “the Mora River is chronically dry.” That means there is sometimes enough precipitation for one of the acequias around her home to flow with water; the other two are drying out.

“It’s the same in one community after another,” said Garcia, 49, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, a nonprofit group aiming to protect the 700 or so acequias in the state.

Traditionally, the acequia growing season in much of New Mexico had been from April to October. But in the parts of the state where farmers are grappling with water shortages, the season is now running only about half that span.

The shift has stressed not only the sources of locally grown organic food — many acequia farmers sell their produce at local growers’ markets — but also a way of life that has begun to feel at risk of fading into the past.

For centuries, acequias have functioned under a system of governance in which farmers share in the cleaning and upkeep of each ditch. They also pay dues and elect a mayordomo, who has the authority to determine how much water is available on any given day and which farmer, or farm, gets it.

The system is not without its flaws, as some former mayordomos who faced quarrels with angry neighbors can attest. But it has allowed the acequias to meet one challenge after another.

Ralph Vigil, a farmer in Pecos, a town of 1,400, said the drought had exacerbated problems the farmers were already dealing with, from arguments over water allotments to apathy.

Still, Vigil said he did not view the acequias as a potential victim of climate change. Instead, he sees them as part of the solution.

While he is well aware of the squeeze on water sources around New Mexico, Vigil holds out hope that the Pecos River, which nourishes his acequias, will get enough snowmelt and monsoon rains to keep flowing.

He pointed to studies showing that acequias can deliver benefits during times of drought well beyond those of elaborate irrigation systems fashioned out of metal pipes or steel culverts.

The earthen canals of the acequias, for instance, can hold water for long periods of time. Their seepage helps recharge small aquifers while also hydrating habitats for birds, wild animals and, of course, people.

“We’ve been low-carbon for centuries,” Vigil said. “But for us to survive, we still need the rains.”

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