A vision for New Mexico’s water

Mora County Commissioner Paula A. Garcia on October 14, 2014. Luis Sanchez Saturno/The New Mexican

After enduring a year of historic drought, New Mexico started 2019 with much-needed snow. Many are vigilantly watching mountain snowpack with hope for flowing rivers and replenished reservoirs. Anticipation of a better growing season this year also coincides with the potential for a new era in which our new governor will uphold the issue of water as a priority.

Water is fundamental to decisions about the well-being of our state. Hundreds of acequias and community water systems in New Mexico are caretakers of water as it flows through our fields and through the infrastructure that we build and maintain. For rural communities, water is intertwined with our way of life, livelihood and survival.

Water rights are also an economic justice issue for rural areas of the state. Commodification and proposals to export water rights from rural areas threaten to dispossess communities of water rights needed to build their long-term futures.

The incoming administration will face profound decisions about managing our state’s water. There will be pressure to conform our policy to short-term boom and bust cycles of extractive industries and real estate speculation, but there is another path rooted in sustainability, cultural and natural heritage, and respect for rural areas of the state:

Equity in water and food policy. Local and regional food systems can contribute to efforts to lift rural areas out of poverty and improve affordable access to healthy, fresh food. Keeping water in rural, agricultural communities should be part of a strategy for rural economic justice.

Community-based water management. Water sharing, known among acequias as the repartimiento, is a timeless customary practice rooted in centuries of tradition, which is gaining prominence as a water management strategy for New Mexico. The state engineer should be a committed partner in enabling local communities to develop water-sharing agreements and should support local decision-making about water rights.

Transparency and participation. Decisions about water can have profound impacts on local communities. Participation and involvement in permits affecting water rights or water quality should be enabled by transparency and access to electronic notices and data. For example, proposed legislation to publish water-rights applications online would be a good start.

Investment in water infrastructure and governance. Rural water systems and acequias, which are governed by volunteers, face constraints in generating revenue. The state should support training on governance as well as funding and technical assistance for engineering design and construction of infrastructure projects.

Water planning. New Mexico needs a robust water planning process with community participation as well as access to data and modeling to make informed decisions. For example, planning could incorporate research by the Water Resources Research Institute at New Mexico State University on water budgets and the connection between irrigation and aquifer recharge.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has a tremendous opportunity to improve the well-being of families in New Mexico in a manner that also respects the dignity of rural communities and acequias. At a time when our policymakers are called upon to grow our economy, educate our children and create healthy, thriving communities, it is vital that water policy supporting sustainable rural communities is also part of that vision.

Paula Garcia is executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, a statewide, grassroots membership association of acequias and community ditches. She is former chairwoman of the Mora County Commission. Her family operates a small ranch in the Mora Valley, where her son attends Mora High School.

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