the economics of water (and some other stuff)

Water in the High Desert

A guest post by Joanna Cornell:*
23 July 2009

“I had my farm with water rights but no water access for over a year,” shares Bob, the organic farmer, standing next to a narrow stream. It’s a New Mexico spring, with a wide blue sky above a high alpine desert breaking into bloom. I don’t feel like I’m in America anymore. The more I learn about water rights here, the less I feel like I’m even in this century. Living on a 470-acre ranch at 8,000 feet, surrounded by sage brush, is a dramatic change for me; after years in academia and government working on east coast water issues. Until I settle again, I’ve set out to experientially learn about sustainable living and water resources in various regions.

Bob describes the acequia water system still used here in northern New Mexico. Originating back to the traditions brought by Spanish and Mexican settlers in the 16th century, the system diverts water and uses gravity to bring water from a river onto private property. The main river is diverted into acequias, hand-dug ditches with thin wooden boards as dams. Those with approved water rights can open their little dam on their allocated day and flood their property with stream water. It’s a true commons here. The acequias are maintained by the community, with group work-days when people walk the stream corridors removing debris. After having worked on water resources for more than a decade, I feel my jaw drop open as I learn about the local system. Is this possible? In America? In 2009?

Water rights that come with a property do not guarantee access to that water, as there are approximately three times as many water rights on paper as there is water actually available. In New Mexico, water rights are defined by the “first in time, first in right” philosophy. So my organic farmer friend, being new to the area and white, falls far back in line as to being able to claim the water rights on his property. The actual ability to access the water is ruled over by Majordomo. He decides which users can access the water based on a complex range of factors, including rainfall that season. The politics in play run deep, into family blood and cultural ties. The area is a mix of traditional Hispanic, Native American, and white traditions. The interweaving of rules from different cultures intrigues me. Although with its drawbacks, I like the idea of local people having power over their local water, being able to make decisions that directly impact everyone in the community.

“So how did you finally get your water?” I ask. “At one of the meetings, the Majordomo casually mentioned that his pigs were hungry. I had a big squash crop that season, so I delivered a whole pick-up truckload of squash to him. It surprised him. That softened him, he finally saw me as a farmer and not just a white man new to the area. I was granted permission the next year to open the dam to get water onto my property.” His farm water needs are supplied by a well and weekly access to the surface water which floods onto his land. What role did those squash really play? Was the decision ruled by higher predicted rainfall the following year? I will never know. But I like the story of getting water rights through gifts of squash, here, in America.

What about enforcement? I mean, what is stopping someone from opening their flimsy wooden dam in the middle of the night? “People are always watching,” shares the farmer. It’s a different world here in the small towns of New Mexico. For example, I ordered a dessert at a corner stand, and a few hours later a local resident stopped by my ranch asking how I enjoyed the dessert. Yes, if strangers hear about orders of desserts then it really is possible that water usage is being watched here.

When I first learned about the system in place, I felt my academic core stiffen. I felt my modern training clash with this traditional system in place. But the more I learn about it, I see how it’s working. It’s far from perfect, but so is any other system. The modern water delivery systems in place, with water coming out of taps and hoses, disconnect people from the source of their water. Water looses its reverence; it becomes a commodity. It is taken for granted. The acequia system maintains the community connection and the mystical.

Bottom Line: I strongly feel that our water issues will not be solved by scientists and bureaucrats alone. Complex water issues will not be solved intellectually alone. It will take a truly interdisciplinary leap, allowing in more than science and policy. My research explores how to connect people to their natural world at many levels. Education tends to focus on the intellectual aspects of our being, but we can not leave out spiritual, creative, and cultural components. I had the pleasure of participating in a water-blessing ceremony on a property where water had not flowed for more than a decade. The newly restored flow, which had taken much physical work, was celebrated with songs and prayers. The water’s sacred nature was integrated into its new role on the property. What would it be like if people treated the water coming out of their taps with the same reverence?

* Joanna received her PhD in Environmental Science and Policy from George Mason University in 2007.