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A New Mexico Pueblo’s antiquated irrigation system is being tested by drought, wildfires

Members of a tribe stand near an earthen ditch that's part of the tribe's irrigation system.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
Members of the Jemez Pueblo in north-central New Mexico stand near a stretch of earthen ditch that's part of the tribe's centuries-old irrigation system. Pictured in the foreground, left to right, are Daryl Lucero, Estevan Sando, and Arlan Sando.

Water is scarce in much of the Mountain West. That’s why, every spring, one tribe spends days cleaning ditches that are vital to irrigating their farmlands. But aging infrastructure and the effects of climate change are making it harder for farmers to get enough water – even after the cleanings.

Daryl Lucero is watching the Jemez River rush over a small diversion dam in north-central New Mexico, a landscape filled with red flat-topped mesas and snow-flecked mountains painted with browns and greens.

The dam pushes water east to a ditch that runs through the Jemez Pueblo reservation, and flushes water west to a ditch that delivers water to farm fields.

“This is the very beginning of our irrigation systems,” says Lucero, the Pueblo’s second lieutenant governor.

The Pueblo uses a centuries-old system of acequias, which are gravity-fed ditches that carry rain and snowmelt from the mountains. The tribe maintains nearly 25 miles of these ditches, most lined with concrete, which fill up with sediment, grasses, and debris throughout the year.

A ground-level view of an irrigation ditch clogged with a bundle of brown brush and branches.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
A bundle of brush and branches clog a gravity-fed irrigation ditch called an acequia on the Jemez Pueblo reservation in New Mexico.

“We’ll clean out anything that's encroaching onto the lining, take out any kind of sediment, take out everything that's going to impede on getting proper flow in the ditches,” says Lucero, one of the hundreds of Jemez men who gather every spring for a two-day cleanup, equipped with shovels and axes.

The ditches are narrow and shallow – most are easy to step across – so they clog up easily. The men will scrape out the brush and branches and burn them.

Lucero says each cleaning is a demonstration that in the arid West, it’s possible for people to share scarce resources for a common goal. In their case, it's about providing everyone in the community with enough water.

“We want to make sure we utilize every drop we have and making sure it's not getting lost,” he adds.

But that’s becoming more of a challenge. The West's decades-long drought is shrinking the tribe’s surface and groundwater supplies. Moreover, the farming community’s losing the water that’s seeping from these 60-year-old-plus concrete ditches and the outdated diversion dam.

Meanwhile, increasingly severe wildfires are damaging the watershed.

“With the wildfires, that has increased our sediment loads coming down," Lucero says. "We’ve lost a bunch of topsoil in the upper watershed area, so the water that we could retain is now just coming flush straight through our systems.”

A man in a plaid shirt stands at the edge of a field where corn is planted and harvested. Patches of snow cover the field.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
Arlan Sando, the Jemez Pueblo’s tribal chief, stands at the edge of the tribe's nearly 10-acre community corn field.

Another factor is population growth to the north of Jemez, according to Arlan Sando, the Pueblo’s tribal chief.

“A lot more people, non-tribal members are living upstream and they're the ones that are really using a lot of that water, pumping it out and leaving us with less water,” said Sando, standing at the edge of the tribe’s 10-acre community corn field that members till, plant and harvest together.

“Through ancient prayers, this field is very sacred and everything that grows here. It's our way of life,” he said.

It’s a life supported by deep cultural respect and strong agricultural values that are passed on from one generation to the next, Sando said. The Pueblo’s crops – corn, chili, and alfalfa, among others – are primarily used to feed themselves and their livestock.

That’s if they can rely on water.

Estevan Sando, a traditional leader for the Pueblo and a farmer, said his field is far downstream and some years the irrigation ditch runs dry by the time it’s his turn to water his field.

“It's discouraging at times because, when I was a young boy, the water was full, it was never empty,” he said. “In recent years, I've seen it look like this – no water in it.”

A wide-angle view of a river's waters rushing over a small diversion dam
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
The Jemez River rushes over a diversion dam that pushes water east to a ditch that runs through the Jemez Pueblo reservation, and flushes water west to a ditch that delivers water to farm fields.

Back at the diversion dam, Lucero said the Pueblo is hoping Congress will soon confirm its water rights. A bill introduced last fall would settle the tribe's claims to Jemez River water, rights it's been fighting for going on 40 years. A settlement would not only give the tribe access to more water but also provide them with federal funding for water-related projects, such as repairing or replacing their aging diversion dam.

“We're working with what we have and making it work,” Lucero says with a laugh. “But definitely some upgrades are needed.”

In the meantime, Lucero says they’re glad the snowpack is deeper than most years. And like every year, they’re focused on using – and sharing – the water that flows down to their community as best as they can.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

This story was supported by The Water Desk, an initiative from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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