Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

In New Mexico, community-operated acequias ditches, some over 400 years old, date back to the time before statehood. They are the cornerstone of the Hispanic settlements in the state. Around 800 acequias feed the fields of the Land of Enchantment and each has a mayordomo (administrator) and a commission which oversees the delivery of water, settles disputes and maintains the ditch. Acequias sustain agriculture and cooperation around an unpredictable, community resource.

Bernalillo County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada’s verbal slap at farmers being “water wasters” at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA) meeting last month drove Middle Rio Grande farmers to hold a press conference at Civic Plaza. Their goal was to educate the commissioners, the media and the public about the benefits of irrigation and acequia-based agriculture.

Claiming his accusation was based on research that his office had conducted, Quezada, an actor and comedian turned commissioner, said, “Farmers (in the middle Rio Grande) tend to be the biggest wasters of water.”

“This narrative that negates the technical and lived experience of our farmers is damaging as it perpetuates a western colonial mindset when it comes to our water management in the Middle Rio Grande,” responded Alejandria Lyons, Environmental Justice Organizer, SouthWest Organizing Project. “We need to uplift our traditional land stewards as we build resilience to this climate and water crisis.”

At the press conference, where several demonstrators wore overalls and carried pitchforks, farmers called on the ABCWUA to hold Quezada accountable for his “harmful, damaging and misinformed statement.”

Quezada said his office’s research had reports of farmers watering “fields of weeds.” Jorge Garcia, Executive Director, Center for Socially Sustainable Systems was quick to respond. “Quezada asserts his office has done ‘research’ and has concluded farmers who are farming ‘the old way’ are wasting a lot of water because they flood their fields. He doesn’t seem aware that there are crops that cannot be irrigated any other way but by flooding, e.g., alfalfa; and that most of the water used in flooding irrigation is not wasted; it goes to replenish the aquifer, so farmers who are irrigating the old way are actually helping the rest of water users by allowing water to go down and replenish the aquifer.”

The wetlands and wildlife corridors created in low-lying areas by this farming method benefit the ecosystem, local plants and wildlife, the tree canopy as well as the aquifer.

During the recent ABCWUA meeting Quezada peddled his previous script backwards saying, “My comments about agricultural irrigation methods were not intended as a criticism,” and that he should have said “users of water,” not “wasters.”

“The only time anybody’s up in arms about water is when we’re looking at how we’re creating jobs and affordable housing in my district,” Quezada recently told the Albuquerque Journal. Contra Santolina groups that attended the farmer’s press conference and have fought for ten years against the Southwest Mesa Santolina development that Quezada has supported may not agree with this statement.

South Valley farmer Marcia Fernandez said Quezada’s words looked to her like an attempt to pit farmers against West Side residents. “Misinformation like this does not help us deal with drought.”

The Rio Grande Compact 2021 debt ended with New Mexico owing Texas about 127,000 acre-feet of water, or 41 billion gallons. Because of the extreme drought, farmers have borne water shortages for the past several irrigation seasons and will face more cutbacks this growing season.

Lauro Silva of Mountain View Community Garden and Sustainability Project disputed Quezada, saying in part that “a policy maker’s responsibility is to promote well informed directives that promote the best interests, health and welfare of the public they represent.  Public statements that are ill informed and misleading do not set good governance…we need to develop water policies which enhance quality of life, sustainability, and preserve the local agriculturally based communities in the Rio Grande Valley.”

“Farmers don’t waste water! Sembradores no gastan agua!” Santiago Maestas, President of the South Valley Regional Association of Acequias.

At press time, Quezada had written a clarification of his statements that was published in the Albuquerque Journal on April 28.