Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Fire, flood-damaged acequias may struggle to get help | Local News

As contractor Jon Paul Romero watched his work crew suck debris out of a clogged acequia culvert in this bucolic community of about 500 people, he shook his head from side to side, recalling what it looked like about a month ago.

“There were areas where you could not see the acequias,” he said.

Flooding this summer covered Dixon’s three acequias with dirt, sand, rock, brush, trees and anything else the flash floods picked up and discarded along their devastating path. Now, about a month into what Romero predicts will be a six- to eight-week job, contractors are making headway clearing out the acequias and shoring up culverts.

He has crews preparing for similar work in Mora and San Miguel counties, both hard-hit by the historic Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire this year.

Winter is looming, and cold and frozen ground and asphalt is not conducive to such repairs, Romero said.

Dixon is lucky, some of its acequia commissioners said, because it is benefiting from financial aid and manpower provided by the state. That’s because Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared the July flood a disaster in Rio Arriba County, making the area eligible for assistance through the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Those three acequias now have a chance to provide water to a community that stakes its life on those flows.

But things are not looking so rosy for many of the state’s other acequias in the wake of a string of fires that scorched much of the land, scattered ash in the waterways and instigated a series of flash floods that clogged and damaged those structures.

The fires and subsequent flooding tore into the acequias in three burn scar areas around the state, damaging 24 acequias in the Black Fire, one in the Cerro Pelado Fire and 45 acequias in the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire — the largest fire in New Mexico history, according to a report by Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, prepared for lawmakers last month.

That’s 70 acequias — about 10 percent of the total number in the state — in danger now, Garcia said in an interview.

Whether the federal or state governments declare any of those areas disaster sites and offers financial aid matters little if those acequias are expected to pay for the repairs up front and await reimbursement that may not come for months, if not longer.

Making an initial investment is nearly impossible, Garcia said, since most of the individual acequias in the state probably don’t even have $10,000 in their bank account. She estimates some of those larger restoration and repair projects could cost between $10 million and $15 million.

“People are willing to go through hoops, but this hoop — paying for it — is impossible,” she said.

The three Dixon acequia projects are funded with $750,000 in state emergency funds, Nora Meyers Sackett, spokeswoman for the governor, said in an interview. Meanwhile the Federal Emergency Management Agency, charged with administering $2.5 billion in aid for communities charred by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, is doing what it can to expedite those funds, Garcia said. But that help could still be months away.

FEMA authorities are still in the process of setting up a regional claims office, which is expected to be up and running in early 2023. FEMA spokeswoman Angela D. Byrd wrote in an email Friday that once acequias submit requests to the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the state will then submit requests for public assistance to FEMA.

“If all goes well and we have the required info, it can take up to 30 days to get an obligation and then money would be forwarded to NMDHSEM,” Byrd wrote in an email. “We cannot speak on how long it will take NMDHSEM to disburse the funds.”

But, she added “if all things are not in order, it will depend on the situation. Most of the time it is the environment and historic aspect that is holding things up. These issues require consultation with local tribes, the state historic preservation office and several other state and federal agencies. If we have any of these concerns it can take much longer to get things moving.”

Meanwhile, acequia officials are doing what they can to look for solutions, Garcia said. It’s not easy.

While flooding can damage a solitary acequia here or there, the combination of fires and floods this year has hit “a whole new level” of worry and challenges, she said.

“We’ve never done disaster work. We’ve never had a big wildfire with so many damaged acequias,” let alone more than one wildfire causing such damage, Garcia said.

If Dixon’s situation is any indicator, the raging waters also destroyed diversion structures along the acequias, realigned the routes, washed away fences and overwhelmed head gates. An acequia diversion system near Gascon now looks like a big pile of rocks.

The irrigation water ranchers and farmers rely on in those areas is at risk, Garcia said.

And if something is not done fast, spring will look awfully bleak for some of them.

Help is on the way — at least some help

Acequia commissioners in Dixon know what that hoop-jumping process is like. Between them, they probably have no more than $30,000 or $40,000 in annual operating funds, money generally used to hire crews to clean out the acequias in the early spring in advance of irrigation season.

The commissioners may rely on state capital outlay funding to help with infrastructure projects, but they are not versed in how to navigate the world of federal aid.

“Commissioners are volunteers who don’t know where to find this money,” said Matt Romero, commissioner for the Acequia del Llano in Dixon. As he watched work crews clear out his acequia nearby, he said commissioners have become dependent on state experts to help them find disaster funds.

“Our budgets are to maintain and do minor repairs,” he said, saying he gives “thanks” to the state for stepping in to help.

Romero and Yolanda Romero Jaramillo, commissioner for the nearby Acequia de la Plaza de Dixon, both said they are thankful they don’t have to wade through the paperwork and requirement to pay first and get reimbursed later that federal aid requires.

“What would we have used for collateral — our water rights?” Romero Jaramillo asked rhetorically.

They said they know what residents of Mora and San Miguel counties are going through. With their acequia system clogged and covered, if it had not been for a healthy summer monsoon, farmers in the Dixon area would have been left dry, Romero said.

Romero, who runs Cordova Contracting and Development LLC, said his crews will begin doing that work in Mora and San Miguel counties this week. He paid a visit to those sites last week and painted a portrait of acequias so covered with trees and rock that they look like desert wastelands.

The state Department of Transportation has the ability to use FEMA funds to at least clear out debris, Garcia said. But that department cannot use that money for major structural repairs that some 15 badly damaged acequias around the state so badly need.

Ricky Serna, secretary for the Department of Transportation, said in a phone interview he shares the sense of frustration some acequia commissioners feel about the situation. He and Garcia both said they want to work with state lawmakers to get financing for those larger projects in the upcoming legislative session, scheduled to start in mid-January.

But even if the Legislature approves a funding bill and Lujan Grisham signs it into law, it is unlikely that money would reach the acequias sooner than the spring.

If the 15 or so acequias in dire need of help are not repaired and flowing by that time, Garcia said, “There will be many ranchers without access to water. That will be devastating for those families – their livelihood, their income, their way of life.”

And the trickle-down impact on the rest of the state could be felt in other ways, with a lack of fresh locally grown food and hay — a necessity for raising cattle. That lack of water could lead to “unraveling of the fabric of the ranching economy” in the region, she said.

And while the FEMA aid is welcome, she said it will never capture those losses.

“For those seriously damaged, they may not be able to irrigate next year, which is very tragic,” Garcia said.

Romero-Jaramillo put it this way: “Without acequias, New Mexico would not exist.”

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