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Drought tests centuries-old water-sharing traditions in New Mexico

ABIQUIU, N.M. (AP) — At the edge of a sandstone outcropping, Teresa Leger Fernandez looks out on the Rio Chama. The river tracks a diverse landscape from the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains through rugged basalt hillsides, layers of volcanic tuff, and the red and yellow cliffs made famous by painter Georgia O’ Keefe.

Here marks the genesis of New Mexico’s centuries-old tradition of sharing water through irrigation systems known as acequias.

It’s also one of the many spots in the arid west facing more pressure as drought stretches into another decade and climate change piles on with warmer temperatures.

Once an acequia commissioner and now a U.S. congresswoman, Leger Fernandez knows how hard it is to tell farmers they won’t get all the water they need — or maybe none at all.

She talks about the annual limpia, or cleaning of acequias in preparation for planting season.

“There was always a sense of accomplishment but now what we’re witnessing is we can’t do it all the time anymore because we don’t have the water,”î Fernandez said during a tour with acequia officials. “And what you all are facing is not of your making, right? But you are having to work through the struggle of making whatever water is available work for everybody in the community.”

Some earthen canals didn’t get a drop of water this year, another example of parched Western conditions. Like many parts of the world, the region has become warmer and drier over the last 30 years, mainly due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases resulting from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas development and transportation.

Boat docks are high and dry at reservoirs around New Mexico, and Lake Powell along the Utah-Arizona line has hit a record low this year. A key Northern California reservoir that helps water a quarter of U.S. crops is shrinking.

For mayordomos–those who oversee acequias and ensure equitable water distribution–it has become a scramble.

Less snow falls, and warmer temperatures melt it sooner. Dry soil soaks up runoff before it reaches streams and rivers that feed acequias.

Paula Garcia, New Mexico Acequia Association executive director, shuns the phrase “new normal” because she said that implies stability in weather patterns the community’s ditches rely on.

“We’re trying to be quick on our feet and adapt as much as we can, but it tests what we can really call resiliency,î” Fernandez said, standing in shade at Santa Cruz Farm and Greenhouses in Espanola, where rows of chile, corn and blackberries bake in the sun. “We think we’re resilient, but resilient to what point? We’re bumping up against what those tipping points are.”

Federal water management policies have complicated matters as needs of cities and other users overshadow these Hispanic and Indigenous communities.

Their traditions are rooted in Moorish ingenuity first brought to Europe and then to North America via Spanish settlers. Those water-sharing ideas were blended with already sophisticated irrigation culture developed by Indigenous communities in what is now the southwestern U.S.

What developed were little slices of paradise, with gardens and orchards that have sustained communities for generations.

Roughly 640 New Mexico acequias still provide water to thousands of acres of farmland.

Darel Madrid, Rio Chama Acequia Association president, didn’t grow a garden this year. He wanted to lead by example.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,î” Madrid said, who would love nothing more than to grow watermelons again.

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