Water Democracy

Water Democracy

Farmers in New Mexico have banded together to protect scarce water resources from developments that could end their way of life. Their collective activity is a model for grassroots politics in the age of climate change.

The Rio Grande outside San Antonio, New Mexico, last May (Sammy Feldblum)

“There is no shortage of water in the desert, but exactly the right amount . . . unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” –Edward Abbey

On May 12 of last year, the feast day of San Ysidro, some seventy people gathered on a street corner in Albuquerque’s South Valley. Atop a vine-embossed pagoda, a rotating sculpture showed the saint circling slowly behind a bull. Santiago Maestas, president of the South Valley Regional Association of Acequias, stood beneath carrying a cross. Clad in white linens and dark shades, he instructed farmers Rip Anderson and Marcia Fernandez to pass along a statue of San Ysidro Labrador, patron saint of farmworkers, to a new pair of stewards for the coming harvest season. Maestas recounted the story of the saint, whose piety God rewarded with divine aid in ploughing and harvesting his fields. A conch blew, drumming started. A procession of dancers, their legs decked in shells that jangled with each footfall, led a leisurely march toward the group’s destination: the Arenal Acequia, an irrigation ditch bringing Rio Grande water to thirstier parts of the South Valley. Children mounted a bridge over the ditch, tossing flower petals into the water for good luck in the coming season. A white-robed Catholic priest kicked off an interfaith prayer for water.

For water, Maestas told the crowd, “is sacred.” Especially in New Mexico: the region, always dry, is in the midst of long-term drought. That worries planners and farmers alike. Now, an enormous proposed development is poised to further stress the Middle Rio Grande.

For five years, the Bernalillo County Commission has been weighing approval of Santolina, a mixed-use development slated to house over 90,000 people—more than live in Santa Fe, and nearly a fifth of Albuquerque’s current population. The development’s footprint, on unincorporated land west of town, is currently home to a few dozen cows, a communications tower, and conspicuously little water. The project’s developer will need to acquire water rights from somewhere, then get the water onto the West Mesa—an intricate process, hydrologically and politically. Some of the farmers in the area cultivate land granted to their forebears by the Spanish crown, with water rights guaranteed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Across the region, water rights represent hundreds of years of changing laws and shifting sovereignty, making planning difficult. In the drying West, where these rights are regularly overpromised along struggling rivers and shrinking aquifers, new development comes at a high cost to long-timers.

Proponents of Santolina, most of whom are involved in development and real estate locally, tout job creation and organized growth. Opponents, particularly South Valley farmers, decry stretching water resources and public funds in an already distressed area.

The Rio Grande ran at historic lows last year, the snowpack feeding its headwaters among the scarcest on record. (This winter’s snowpack was much more bountiful, temporarily easing drought conditions.) The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), in charge of distributing the river’s water through central New Mexico, had to shut down many irrigation ditches two months before the planned date of October 31. Already by San Ysidro’s feast day in May, the river had run dry seventy miles south of Albuquerque, desiccated fish huddled like sandstone sculptures where the water had receded before evaporating entirely. The district issued warnings through the summer that its upstream reservoirs were nearly completely spent: “Naturally occurring flow has often been so low,” its August 10 press release stated, “that there would have been no water in the river from Cochiti all the way to Elephant Butte, had it not been for the water stored from previous seasons.”

Even amid such scarcity, and despite lacking a water plan, the Santolina project remains politically viable. It’s a testament to the political power of wealthy interests in a poor region. Much of the opposition to the project comes from the semi-rural South Valley, home to 40,000 mostly Hispanic and Latino residents, a quarter of whom live below the poverty level (even as homeownership hovers above 80 percent.) To many of these residents, the Santolina model of development seems antithetical to the area’s history and agricultural roots.

“In Latino culture, when you say movida, that means it’s shady politics,” said Virginia Necochea, a leader of the movement against Santolina. “This is a movida.”

Visions of Progress

“They want to paint us as backwards, and against progress,” Necochea, a professor at the University of New Mexico, said between bites of carnitas in the South Valley’s El Paisa taco shop last spring. “I’m not against all development. I’m against development that’s not smart. If this place had plenty of water, build your damn city. It’s because there’s not enough resources.”

Necochea, like many in the South Valley, irrigates a garden on her land. Since 2009, the Agri-Cultura network has worked with small-scale growers to offer a vision of collective economic uplift at odds with the build-it-and-see model promoted by the Santolina developers. A farmer-owned cooperative that aggregates, processes, and sells produce grown by small farmers in the region, Agri-Cultura allows cultivators to get their product to market more reliably. It was the first of three farmer cooperatives incubated by the New Mexico chapter of the American Friends Service Committee. The AFSC also runs an annual training program to teach farmers skills and help newcomers get their farms off the ground; by the time students graduate from the program, they have a workable plot. That program pays a stipend to enable working people to participate.

Maestas, emcee of the San Ysidro ceremony, credits AFSC’s Farmer-to-Farmer program with helping to modernize farming in the South Valley: promoting more efficient drip irrigation, hoop houses, and passive solar cold frames—which work like a greenhouse to extend the growing season and increase yields. The gains aren’t just edible. “There’s so many levels to farming: tradition, culture, health of communities, and providing income to people,” said Sayrah Namaste, co-director of the state’s AFSC chapter. “Living in New Mexico, living in a desert, water is our most precious resource. And so that’s why people are concerned about how it is being used.”

These organizations are part of a small farming renaissance across the South Valley. Maestas is its Da Vinci. His farming career began inauspiciously: after Maestas moved into his house in the South Valley in 1973, he began to grow alfalfa using the water from his acequia—a communal irrigation system that the area’s Spanish colonists built atop the irrigation ditches native Puebloans used. He became a “gentleman farmer,” he explained, while still working a nine-to-five.

When the man who owned the property at the head of the irrigation ditch passed away, nobody took his place. “The culvert that used to bring water under a road to us rotted out and then the road was paved over by the county,” Maestas recalled. “So we lost our connection to the ditch.” He called his local representative from the MRGCD and was told that the property’s new owner did not want the ditch reopened.

“At this point I was ignorant, I didn’t know this history,” Maestas said. “I just knew that Don Ernesto Padilla told me that if I wanted to use the ditch, I had to help him clean it.” In the process of trying to get his ditch back, Maestas learned about the history of acequias in New Mexico, and how the MRGCD’s founding in 1923 overrode acequia associations that had governed the area’s waterways for centuries. The MRGCD helped to control flooding but left acequia associations legally unable to collect dues; financially starved, they disintegrated in the South Valley.

Maestas also learned that his property had “pre-1907” water rights, based on maps of waterways drawn before that year. Since these rights predate the creation of the MRGCD, the district does not own them, and they are only superseded by the water rights of the Pueblo reservations along the river, whose water use stretches back centuries further. Maestas claimed his pre-1907 water rights by petitioning the state engineer’s office.

His ditch was reopened in 2005, when a friendlier owner took over the property at the head of the ditch. Maestas and a partner then began to walk the Valley with old maps, finding others who had unclaimed pre-1907 rights, which, because they do not depend on a permit for beneficial use from the MRGCD, can be more easily sold, transferred, or leased. These water rights can be South Valley homeowners’ most valuable piece of property. Perversely, this bounty leaves the region vulnerable to developers hunting for water.

Thanks to Maestas’s efforts, more than 350 South Valley households claimed these water rights. (He estimates that as many people have rights yet to be claimed.) Maestas and his colleagues called meetings in local Catholic parishes, each church corresponding to an acequia, where acequieros voted in favor of adopting bylaws suggested by the New Mexico Acequia Association to form local organizations. These acequia associations in the Valley now communally govern five of the Valley’s six “acequia madres,” meaning elected mayordomos along each ditch are recognized representatives of the state and can take action against parciantes who, say, irrigate out of turn, or fail to help clean the acequias. The associations in turn convene as the South Valley Regional Association of Acequias (SVRAA), of which Maestas is the president. This structure—nested levels of collective control over the ditch network—has led regional scholars to dub acequia networks “water democracies.” With the reconstitution of the acequia associations, water is flowing through once-fallow ditches, and residents of the South Valley are again arbiters of their water destiny.

Who Owns the Valley?

Virginia Necochea and Santiago Maestas have taken to calling the South Valley the “Valley of Atrisco” to emphasize that the settlement predates Albuquerque and is on unincorporated county land. The name also emphasizes the connection between the South Valley and the Atrisco grant land where Santolina is planned. The battle of Santolina is about water usage and competing visions of economic development, but it’s also about the soul of Atrisco—between those whose hopes for progress accentuate tradition and those pitching a futuristic city on a hill.

The would-be site of Santolina is now empty. Dozens of bullet holes riddle the stop signs at the heart of the development site. An imposing sign warns that buying property on the adjacent Pajarito land grant “may be illegal”—which about sums up the level of certainty surrounding land issues on the grants from the Spanish crown. The area has a dark reputation; the bodies of eleven murdered women were unearthed nearby in 2009, and the case remains unsolved. On a recent visit, I found two dead dogs, including a puppy that had been tied to a fence and shot in the head.

The openness of the land belies its tumultuous history. In 1692, when the Spanish reconquered the region after a Pueblo revolt pushed them out, the territorial governor gave the land to a group of families to establish a settlement. “For most of the 267 years since,” wrote the Albuquerque Tribune in 1959, “the descendants have fumed and feuded over that Atrisco Grant.” In 1967, after an especially testy decade, the Atrisco heirs voted to transform the land grant into a corporation, Westland, to sell to developers. Those who lost that vote sued their way to the New Mexico Supreme Court; they lost there, too.


The current owner, Barclay’s Bank of London, foreclosed the property after Suncal, the previous owners, went bankrupt in the financial crash of 2008. The bank set about developing it under the auspices of Western Albuquerque Land Holdings. WALH lists a number online that has been disconnected; their listed address is an office of the Bank of Albuquerque.

Juan Reynosa has been helping to coordinate opposition to Santolina with the SouthWest Organizing Project. He describes the development as a “water and land grab” with colonial overtones. Now, the bank hopes to find a way to turn a profit on this huge patch of scrubland it inherited. “Barclay’s has no foot in ABQ,” he said. “They have nothing to gain from benefitting the community, the only thing they have to benefit is extracting tax dollars, water rights that they can resell.” If the land is rezoned for development, its value leaps, and it could then be sold off in parcels. “Their ultimate goal is to make money off it in any way possible—that’s the easiest way.”

But Santolina’s opponents aim to create the sort of headache that changes that calculus for Barclay’s. “If you can’t defeat it, then you delay the heck out of it,” Necochea says. “Because hopefully, at some point, Barclay’s will get tired of funding this pet project they have within our community and will go away. We’re hoping.”

At the County Commission

The Bernalillo County Commission will decide Santolina’s fate. At a meeting on November 13, 2018, a drove of unhappy citizens came to voice opposition to the development. Not one person unconnected to the project came to show support for it. Pro-Santolina commissioners scrolled through their phones during public comment. Alejandro Gonzalez, a farmer from Socorro, south of Albuquerque, made the opposition’s case in bold terms: “I don’t want my niece to live in a world where banks are treated more humanely than people, and I don’t want her to live in a world where money is more important than water.” Necochea asked then-Commission Chairman Steven Michael Quezada to recuse himself from the vote because of financial entanglements. Quezada gaveled her down with a “thank you very much, your time is up”; a sheriff’s deputy escorted her from the chambers.

Much of the crowd’s vitriol was directed at Quezada. As a Democrat voting with Republicans and as the representative for the district including the West Mesa and the South Valley, he is regarded as the swing vote. Quezada played the charming Detective Steven Gomez in AMC’s Breaking Bad, which remains enormously popular in Albuquerque and has spawned a cottage industry of themed tours. He rode that celebrity, and tens of thousands of dollars of PAC contributions from Santolina developers, into office. PAC billboards urged voters to “elect Breaking Bad’s good guy.”

As reported by the Albuquerque Journal, Quezada returned portions of the developers’ contributions. But Quezada now supports the project. He turned down requests for comment, citing ongoing litigation. At the meeting, though, Quezada detailed his reasoning: “Think about how there’s only half a job a household on that side of the city, when there’s two jobs a household on the other side of the river,” he said. “So sometimes hard decisions have to be made in order to be equitable. I’m talking about financial justice.” Where exactly the job creation will come from for these residents, beyond decades of construction, is unclear. And while county law demands a water plan before greenlighting the step in question that November day, Quezada seemed unconcerned. “Today is not a meeting about water. Water will come.” The measure passed by a three-to-two vote.

The lack of a water plan has led to two lawsuits against the county, including one from the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “I think one of the biggest issues with respect to this is what appears to be on the part of decision-makers a sense that any development is good,” says Douglas Meiklejohn, the NMELC’s executive director. “That just because a developer proposes this, it doesn’t matter that there’s no water. It doesn’t matter that there are no people. It doesn’t matter that Albuquerque Public Schools has passed a resolution opposing this. None of that makes any difference.” The NMELC’s lawsuit against the county is now being reviewed in the state court of appeals.

Rip Anderson and Marcia Fernandez, who handed off the San Ysidro statue last May, signed on as plaintiffs to that lawsuit, after filing their own years earlier. I visited them at their South Valley home on a Wednesday, irrigation day. Rip twisted open a gate and water gushed into the channel running by their scrubby pastures where a few head of cattle graze; the flow hit depressions in the earthen wall and pivoted out onto the field, picking up a couple of their grandchildren’s toys on its way. Teresa, their granddaughter, hopped happily in the spreading pool but was shooed back toward the house. They would have to discontinue irrigating this pasture by August, thanks to shortages.

“Our lawsuit is attacking the county because they broke their own rules and regulations,” Anderson said. “You turn around and break them when the money comes in. There’s no one to police the county when they do bad things, except people like us suing them.”

Disappearing Groundwater

Elsewhere in the southwest, as in arid areas worldwide, communities rely primarily on groundwater that has accumulated in aquifers over tens of thousands of years. From rural Arizona to Mexico City, water is extracted so quickly that it functions more as a nonrenewable mined resource than a self-replenishing system. Lacking effective governance, that puts communities into conflict over who can drill deepest, allowing monied interests—corporate and municipal—to outcompete small farmers and dry them out.

Rivers, by contrast, are mostly renewable and have traditionally seen stricter governance. Still, the Colorado River, the Southwest’s aorta, which supports a population of 40 million, has seen flows in the early part of this century around a fifth less than last century’s average. The Bureau of Reclamation projects that by midcentury the Colorado will face yearly deficits of over a trillion gallons, nearly half of Arizona’s annual water usage. In March, an eleventh-hour agreement between the seven states along the river to draw less water narrowly avoided federally imposed cutbacks. Further cuts will be needed.

Last May, the MRGCD called a special meeting to discuss a major water transfer. Rio Rancho, a sprawling suburban city to Albuquerque’s northwest, had purchased 500 acre-feet of water—around 160 million gallons—from a property south of Albuquerque. The transfer of water north was large enough to threaten the system’s equilibrium, so the MRGCD intervened despite its historically hands-off approach.

Chuck DuMars, the MRGCD’s water counsel, opened the meeting by offering a blow-by-blow of the state’s water laws since the Desert Lands Act of 1877. “In New Mexico,” he said, “it was pretty clear that the Conservancy Act’s mission was to keep farming viable and alive within the boundaries from Cochiti to the Bosque del Apache.” One reason for that, he said, was the Pueblos, “who antedated all of this” and “were supportive of the idea of participating in an organization that would continue to protect farming as long as it could.”

Concerned parties at the meeting were given an opportunity to voice their thoughts. Maestas, in overalls and a baseball cap, introduced himself and his efforts to organize his neighbors around pre-1907 water rights. “Any water that’s diverted off of the Pajarito Acequia has ultimately an effect on our properties as well,” he noted. “But I, as an individual landowner, not being a lawyer, basically don’t have those skills in order to defend those water rights and my acequia from the transfer. So I’m in favor of this policy, where the district has the resources, the economists, the lawyers, the engineers to support us when we want to also protest these water-right transfers.”

He then handed out cards featuring San Ysidro and the saint’s wife, Santa Maria De La Cabeza, who in Spanish tradition helps to bring rain. A prayer was printed on the back in English and Spanish. “And we hope that you all pray for rain,” Maestas said, “because that’s what we really need.”

Then-commissioner Derrick Lente, hailing from the Sandia Pueblo north of Albuquerque, worried that unless decisive action was taken, only the Pueblos would retain their water rights and ability to irrigate, and even they would be at risk. While their “paper water” is safe, their “wet water” is in danger if the Rio runs too low. In 2015, Isleta Pueblo, directly south of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande, had voiced its opposition to Santolina project, citing fears that it would “drain aquifers and de-water wells upon which we all rely, compounding the future water shortages we already face.”

“We run the risk of farmers being impacted by water transfers out of this valley,” Lente said. “I would hate to see the day that we see farms drying up because houses grow faster than alfalfa or houses grow faster than chile.”

Farmers’ resistance has led Santolina’s developers to explore water options that do not involve buying up as many rights. The developer’s newest plan involves a water reclamation plant on the West Mesa. The infrastructural upgrades needed to get Santolina the estimated 12 million gallons of water it would use daily will cost more than $600 million, says Bernalillo County water utility authority spokesman David Morris. Per county stipulations that new construction occur at “no net expense” to current taxpayers, that money must come from the developers. (The project’s developers, Garrett Development Corporation, did not respond to requests for comment.)

And thanks to the Rio Grande Compact, a water-sharing agreement between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, the same flow would need to reach Texas after 90,000 Santolinians move into the Middle Rio Grande. Already, a Texas lawsuit against New Mexico alleging shortfalls has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Climate change is further straining the water system: as temperatures in the region have risen over the last few decades, the snowpack that feeds the river’s headwaters in Colorado has dropped by around 25 percent.

Through much of the last century, Albuquerque made up for shortfalls by pumping groundwater. An extensive aquifer runs under the Rio Grande; planners in the latter half of the last century celebrated Albuquerque’s location atop an underground Lake Superior. In the 1990s they realized they had grossly overestimated the reserve levels. The city readjusted water plans to emphasize reuse and cut consumption. But the groundwater is still being withdrawn more quickly than its being replaced, says Elaine Hebard, a local water expert who opposes the development.

“Much of the water we’re pumping is between 12,000 and 17,000 years old. It’s not being recharged,” she said. She compares water planners’ vision of the aquifer to a savings account. But “it’s more like a line of credit because we have to pay it back if we use it; we have to cover the resultant depletions. If Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s assumptions aren’t correct and more pumping is required, they will have to buy more water rights to cover those depletions, and they will have to buy them from current users.”

Culture as a Tool

The fight over Santolina echoes the action at the center of John Nichols’s The Milagro Beanfield War. In the 1974 novel, Joe Mondragón starts illicitly irrigating a small beanfield in the fictional northern New Mexico town of Milagro, putting him at odds with the powerful and rapacious Ladd Devine. Mondragón’s neighbors—poor, mostly Chicano small farmers—gradually band together to support him and to battle a water-intensive development Devine is planning, a project that will force many from the area their families have lived for generations. Near the book’s end, a character who spent the last decade in the capital returns to town and has a hopeful moment of clarity: “It was not a vision of the future as totally unknown, but rather a vision of the future as composed, in part at least, of what had been okay about the past.”

Campy though it may be, Milagro’s vision of collective action rooted in an agro-ecological traditionalism still resonates today. In 2014’s This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein argues that the climate crisis stems from a fundamental conflict between contemporary capitalism and the natural resources it exploits. Addressing climate change will then require public investment in green technologies, up to and including collective ownership and control of energy utilities and water. That vision animates the recently proposed Green New Deal, which hopes to use the transition off of fossil fuels as a way to redistribute wealth and power to marginalized communities currently bearing the brunt of our destructive energy system. The water democracies of New Mexico show how this forward-looking political project can draw on longstanding cultures of resource management that run counter to the most egregious profit-seeking of global capitalism.

Elinor Ostrom, the only woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, spent her career studying the conditions under which communities could successfully avoid the tragedy of the commons in managing scant resources. Her work emphasized the importance of self-governance of communities nearest to, and reliant upon, such resources. “As long as mutual dependencies are clear to all participants, and they expect to relate to one another for a long time into the future,” she wrote, farmers “demonstrate substantial capabilities to craft rules that lead to higher yields . . . and to enforce these rules as well.”

At its best, New Mexico’s water governance embodies Ostrom’s ideals. In his 1998 book Acequia Culture, University of New Mexico professor José A. Rivera credits the ditches with “bonding the irrigators in a common enterprise devoted to the goals of survival and continuance,” thereby “perpetuating a sense of place and a system of direct, participatory democracy.” Pueblo reservations also own and distribute their water communally. In the desert, AFSC’s Namaste says, people have always survived in community: “That’s the history of New Mexico: farmers cooperating.”

Maestas sees the recent surge of activism in the South Valley as strands of one thick braid. “All those organizations feed in to our overall vision,” he said, “which is [to] maintain our acequias, customs, and traditions; also to provide an economic base with the local food and agriculture. We’re such a marginalized community. Most of the residents of the Municipal Detention Center are from our community. When they get out, they’ve been convicted of crimes, it’s really hard for them to get jobs. They continue robbing, stealing, to survive. But we have land. We have water. We have labor. We can do great things.”

The San Ysidro festival opens the growing season in the South Valley; to celebrate the season’s end, a much larger group gathers for the burning of El Kookooee, a towering boogeyman. Each year, local elementary school students submit designs for the monster. The winner gets embellished by the adults who build it: last year, a boxy Kookooee with a weasel’s nose had “ICE” splashed across its chest in block letters.  A painted-on scale showed big money outweighing small change. Attendees wrote down their fears and worries on small slips of paper slipped into the sculpture; as sparks leapt into the crisp November night, they went up in smoke.

Tom Powell, the artist who oversees the larger El Kookooee’s annual construction, lives just across the Don Gabino Andrade acequia from Maestas. He noted that the boogeyman is a creature of the river, prowling its banks at night in search of misbehaving children to kidnap and eat. In recent years, it has become a symbol increasingly connected to the very real threats to the South Valley’s way of life. “Cultures can be made political,” Powell said. “Culture is a political tool for revolution.”

Maestas is banking on it. “Not only did we come back to our communities, to adopt bylaws and reorganize our acequias, but also restore the Feast of San Ysidro,” he said. “It’s part of a long-range plan to basically assume control and responsibility at the grassroots level again. And use every tool available.”

Sammy Feldblum lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and reports from all over the map.

Above photo: Maestas at the Festival of San Ysidro (Sammy Feldblum)

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