Mayordomo: Water Culture In Northern New Mexico

Richard Ulibarri is the Mayordomo of the Willow Creek Mesa Ditch in Northern New Mexico. Photo by Sage Faulkner

Children play in a ditch-fed pond off the Willow Creek Mesa Ditch. Courtesy photo

Lateral ditch watering a pasture off the Willow Creek Mesa Ditch. Courtesy photo

Program Manager
Chama Peak Land Alliance

Editor’s not:e: This is the first part of the Stewardship Series.

The role of mayordomo is that of the ditch overseer. One who keeps the big picture in mind as each parciente (water rights holder, landowner, in a ditch system) gets a portion of the water delivered. For the Willow Creek Mesa Ditch in northern New Mexico, that role falls to Richard Ulibarri. Off and on, he has been in the role for forty years. He first moved into the SM Davis cabin near the diversion box for the Willow Creek Mesa Ditch in 1980 and immediately began helping on the ditch.

“Back then, it was easier, there were only a few owners. I used to ride my horse to check ditches. I had just started a horse I had named Popeye, and it would take me all day to look at everything.” Ulibarri said. “It is different now. There are so many small landowners. The culture of the ditch has changed.”

The mayordomo oversees all work done on the acequia, regulates water delivery, addresses problems on the ditch and ensures the democratic process that is so unique to ditch policy is fairly applied. The biggest challenge, with drought and new landowners, is water shortages. For the last three years, water delivery on the Willow Creek Mesa Ditch has been restricted due to prolonged drought and water calls from further down the system. A meter from the state engineer’s department allows regulators in an office in Santa Fe to track every gallon of water that goes through the meter. Richard says that communication is good with the office, but that no credit is given for the significant tail waters that make it back into the downstream flow. The ditch is no longer as full as it once was, and that makes water delivery a challenge.

“You need enough volume to get water where it is needed,” Ulibarri said.

Acequias are traditionally built around conservation and communal effort. A little water goes a long way; slowing water down and getting it in the soil sustains wildlife, agriculture and the small communities that surround a ditch. The New Mexico Acequia Association has spent decades building a vast bank of resources for acequias. As the generational transfer of knowledge leaves a community, these resources become invaluable for a ditch and the new parcientes that are now making the land their home.

Back on the Willow Creek Mesa Ditch, Ulibarri says that every season he must deal with issues like the water stopping for no apparent reason.

“We have nine miles of ditch before it gets to the parcientes. Plugs, trees falling, blow-outs; there is always something that makes us scramble,” he said.

He goes on to tell me that it doesn’t take much for his phone to light up. Today’s water users think of their ditch rights as a utility. Just like a light switch, when they hit it, they want immediate response and availablity. He says there is little sharing and no commitment to the whole acequia. He says it makes it a challenge, but even harder is the fact that there is no one else who has the experience or willingness to take on the role of mayordomo next.

Equally as concerning are the changing climate issues and increasing water scarcity. The New Mexico State Engineer’s office has recently released their 50-year forecast, and the outlook is bleak for the area that the Willow Creek Mesa Ditch is located in. As the state of New Mexico faces continuing litigation for compacts and water delivery by other states and agencies, and the available water continues to be reduced, it makes water conservation a key component of the small users along the rivers and streams in northern New Mexico.

Acequia users are going to have to continue to shift with the new conditions. In times of drought, most communities have learned to share scarce water. Bylaws include prioritizing water first for agriculture; livestock, gardens, pastures, orchards, and then lawns and landscaping. Water banking is an opportunity for acequias to allow a member to reallocate water to other parcientes in a season when their practical use may not be an option. This keeps the important in-use designation clear for the water-right holder, but in situations where irrigation may not be applicable, there is not a threat of loss of the water right. This is a valuable tool for the associations, and one that will likely start seeing more use as conservation of water becomes part of a new normal. Fortunately, if parcientes learn from their past and utilize the tools at hand, resiliency can continue for the lifeblood of the community.

Please check out the resources from the NM Acequia Association http://lasacequias.orgincluding their Acequia Governance Handbook content/uploads2020/09/2015GovernanceHandbook.pdf