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The Ecology of Acequias in Mora County: Patterns, Processes and Place-based Knowledge

Ecology and Geographic Information Systems

Shannon Rupert, Environmental Science (Northern New Mexico College) and Lisa Majkowski, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

Project Description: One unique aspect of agriculture in Northern New Mexico is the centuries old irrigation ditches, or acequias. First employed by Native Amercians and later by the Spanish, communities were built around the need for water, and the acequia system was central to community life in Northern New Mexico. Most acequias are earthen ditches of varying lengths ranging in age from one hundred to over four hundred years old. Fundamentally, an acequia system diverts water as it comes off the watershed, away from natural streams and across the land through a system of man-made channels until, in most cases, the water is channeled back into the natural watercourse. This project asks: what are the effects of this diversion of a natural resource on the ecology of an area? According to Jose Rivera in his book Acequia Culture, acequias have a positive influence on the local ecology by increasing local biodiversity, extending the riparian zone, and protecting the hydrology of the watershed. While this may be true overall, is it true for every acequia system? By examining the temporal and spatial influences on an acequia system located in a single, small watershed, we will be able to determine to what extend these benefits to local ecology are realized and how the acequias may hinder or help natural processes and the environment.

Some of the questions students may want to address are:

  1. Ecology of the acequia system. Since the acequias in Mora are over a century old, how have historic and current use of the water resources in Mora altered the natural landscape? How are they altering it today, or are they a stable part of the valley’s ecology? Are there differences in the biodiversity along natural streams versus the acequias? Are the acequias a system that allows for ecological stability or are they even a system at all, but rather watercourses created and maintained independent of each other? Does this water use system allow for natural ecological processes or interfere with them?

  2. Cultural heritage of shared water resources and place-based knowledge. How is current acequia use and culture affecting the Mora River watershed? How is the historical culture of acequias maintaining community ties today? How are changes in land use and water use affecting the valley’s population? Are current land management practices, both community and governmental, affecting the ecology or hydrology of the acequias and streams within the Mora watershed?

In addition, students will participate in a GIS project mapping the Mora River watershed and the acequias within it. This will include creating maps, first using GPS data collected in the field, then adding GIS data on vegetation, soil type, geology, ownership, land use, water use, as well as historical land and water use from the headwaters of the Mora River throughout Mora County.

At the beginning of the summer, the students will develop a hypothesis driven ecological experiment that they will carry out in addition to mapping the acequias. They will divide their time between fieldwork in the Mora area and lab work and group activities at New Mexico Tech. The Mora Valley is located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, about 200 miles north of the campus. Summers are much cooler than in Socorro, and students will be spending nights in the field at 8000 feet.

During this project students will:

  • learn how to use GPS technology to map the acequia system and watershed
  • develop GIS-based maps to help answer ecological questions
  • design and carry out their own hypothesis-based experiment looking at one aspect of the ecology of the acequia system in the Mora River watershed
  • learn to use appropriate lab techniques and instrumentation for the experiment they design
  • gain experience working in the field