Seeds of Progress Sown in the Midst of Drought.


Goldeneye in Taos, NM | © Brett Walton, Circle of Blue

© Brett Walton, Circle of Blue

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Flying into New Mexico a couple of weeks ago, one could have easily been fooled into a false sense that the permanent drought afflicting the Southwestern United States had finally ceased. The rivers were filled bank to bank with water and the landscape was blooming in a fresh lush hue of green nicely complimenting the rusty earth tones of clay and sandstone.

Despite record rainfall across the Southwest in September some 97 percent of New Mexico is still in one of the four drought categories assigned by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Yet less than half the state is in extreme or exceptional drought, down significantly from early in the summer when the state was in throws of record drought.

A healthy monsoon has alleviated some of the worst dry patches, but with major storage reservoirs in the Southwest, still at less than 10 percent full, the water supply situation remains perilous. Even with storms almost every day during the recent monsoon, the many rivers are still running well below normal.

But like much of the southwest these record rains are likely to do little to alleviant the long term prospects for drought and water shortages.

It has been six months since American Rivers listed the Colorado River as America’s Most Endangered River® for 2013. Much of the news has only confirmed the dire forecast for the future of the river.

But amidst this prolonged drought, seeds of progress are starting to bloom. Some people, even elders leery of change, are asking whether it’s time to try more modern methods of managaing water, and get away from the old way of doing things.

The old ways include, New Mexico’s system of acequias, communal watercourses designed to carry snow runoff to distant fields, are engineered to use gravity and the natural contours of the land, the acequias feed arterial channels, which spread out like capillaries in the fields. New Mexico has more than 800 acequias, some dating to the 1600s. The waterways can be several feet across or as compact as a narrow ditch. Each acequia is maintained by an association of families who draw water from it, headed by a foreman or mayordomo.

The record levels in New Mexico have forced acequia associations to make tough decisions when parceling out the dwindling water. Family gardens and livestock get first priority, and many fields had to do without. As a result, many mayordomos began experimenting with efficient and modern irrigation techniques, like drip irrigation. So far the drip system has been a success. The water comes from the acequia but is released slowly through black plastic irrigation tubing.

Even record monsoons this September will not be enough to quench the land and refill the acequias to what they once were. But innovative thinking at the local and a willingness to adapt to the new normal in the West may in fact help vibrant localities continue to thrive and serve as a blueprint, and New Mexico and the rest of the Colorado River Basin States, for communities to figure out ways to meet the water challenges of the future.

Ask Congress to support funding of critical programs that address sustainable water supply in the Colorado River Basin and across the West.