It’s been nearly eight months since flooding disasters wrecked acequias in southern New Mexico. Since then, irrigation stewards straining to get disaster aid from the state have come to rely on donations and local county funding to get work done ahead of spring.
Acequias are able to irrigate now with all the help that didn’t come from the state emergency accounts, and some might not even need the state aid anymore.
Last summer, the Black Fire tore through the Gila National Forest, blackening trees and charring up soil. Then, when heavy rains hit the burn scar shortly after, floods ran through communities set up around the forest.
Acequia systems in Grant County took heavy damage in August 2022. The uncontrollable waters flipped headgates, silted over ditches and changed the river’s flow — destruction that remained when farmers and ranchers needed to start irrigation work last month.
Stewards, whose acequia bank accounts normally consist of minimal funding and rely on mostly volunteers to fix natural wear and tear, suddenly needed hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix up all the disaster damage.
The same situation was happening in northern New Mexico when the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire rendered many acequia systems useless around the same time last year. The difference is that blaze was started by the federal government, which has committed billions of dollars in aid to take responsibility for the destruction.
The cause of the Black Fire is still being investigated. It was human-caused.
Around the Gila National Forest, acequia stewards originally thought the county could fix up their ditches and then get reimbursed by the state. Those dollars would come from a $750,000 pot New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made available in September 2022 for Grant County.
Few disaster relief measures are scattered throughout historic budget funding bills
That route wasn’t as clear as it seemed.
Justin Gojkovich is the emergency manager of Grant County. He said local officials weren’t so sure the county would actually get money back from the state if dollars were used to repair acequias. So acequia stewards needed to apply for state help individually.
They started submitting paperwork to the state in December 2022. The Mimbres and Gila Valley ditch associations asked for over $1 million in recovery funds for work such as debris removal and fixing up infrastructure like dams or headgates. That exceeds the amount of emergency dollars Lujan Grisham set aside.
The Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management approved debris removal work in the requests submitted, said spokesperson David Lienemann. That makes 20 acequias eligible for these state reimbursement funds.
The issue is that some of those months-old applications describe the need to fund work that’s since been completed.
Danny Roybal is a mayordomo of an affected acequia system in Mimbres, N.M. He said a lot of debris removal has already been done with the help of work from the N.M. Department of Transportation and financial aid from non-state organizations or individuals.
He said he’s not completely sure what the state emergency money would even be used for now. The Mimbres systems have even gotten water flowing again in nearly all of the ditches, he remarked.
“If we’ve got water running in here, this money from the state would be for what?” he asked.
Danny Roybal looks over into the water flowing from a diversion on Feb. 21, 2023. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Roybal said he asked DHSEM but didn’t get a clear answer. He said if the funds could be used for flood mitigation efforts, that would be helpful instead now.
DHSEM still has to send out project worksheets to the stewards in Grant County that were approved to have their work reimbursed from the $750,000 state aid.
That hasn’t happened yet.
Lienemann said it’s in the process of getting done.
Roybal said the state did send out some project worksheets but had to take them back to fix incorrect details.
He said there have been consistent communication issues with DHSEM.
“It’s the same kind of stuff that we’ve been fighting with DHSEM the whole time. They’re very uncoordinated,” Roybal said.
The first disaster recovery dollars to arrive for the Grant County acequias didn’t come from the state.
Instead, funds came in the form of donations in February. Mimbres irrigation systems got a $50,000 check from a private donor, and Gila Valley systems got $100,000 from the mining company Freeport-McMoRan Inc.
And while stewards were getting those dollars, Grant County decided to hand over $600,000 to aid with repairs.
“With the help that we got thanks to the county and also that private donor, they have all been able to get water running back into ditches again,” Roybal said. “So it’s been pretty amazing.”
Some state work got started around then, too. In late February, the Department of Transportation started cleaning up debris and sediment that floods had swept into acequias.
An acequia stewart got started on removing debris from his culvert in Mimbres, N.M. before the state came to help. Pictured on Feb. 21, 2023. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Roybal said the transportation department got work done a lot quicker than anticipated. The work was scheduled to take six to eight weeks, but Roybal said it was done in about two weeks.
He said that finished up in March.
What’s preventing water from flowing in all the Mimbres ditches right now is the river itself, Roybal said, which is running high. He said stewards should all have water in their ditches in a month or so when the water calms down.
Destre Shelley is a steward in the Gila Valley. She said some of those systems are also having the same issue with the Gila River running high. It’s preventing recovery work from being done over there, she said.
“There’s been too much flow in the river to be able to get in and repair the diversions,” she said.
Roybal said more floods will come in the future. Fire season is getting started now, and monsoon season is just around the corner, too. Water will keep running easily off the Black Fire burn scar for years to come with the potential for more natural disasters.
That means repairs now could get torn apart again later on. Roybal said with that in mind, fix-ups have been just enough to get irrigation going.
“We’re trying to do just the bare minimum to protect what we do have,” he said.
Some of the acequias’ requests for state help also included mitigation measures to prevent damage from future disasters.
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