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NMSU receives NSF grant to study link between acequia hydrology, culture, ecosystem

LAS CRUCES, N.M. - Water is the life blood of a community. Through the centuries, northern New Mexico communities along traditional acequia irrigation canals have managed the limited water resource provided by nature in ways that modern society can learn and benefit from.



NMSU research specialist Carlos Ochoa measures the flow of the Rio Hondo with a flow tracker. His work is part of a $1.4 million National Science Foundation funded research to provide new insights into the relationships between traditional water management systems, communities and landscape and wildlife. (NMSU Photo)

New Mexico State University's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences has received a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to provide new insights into the relationships between traditional water management systems, communities and landscapes.

"We think there are clues for future water sustainability within these acequia systems," said NMSU's Sam Fernald, associate professor of watershed management, who is principal investigator of the five-year study. "We want to quantify how these inter-relationships benefit local communities and downstream water users."

The study will involve hydrologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, remote sensing specialists, and rangeland and ecosystem scientists from NMSU, the University of New Mexico, Sandia Labs, New Mexico Tech University, Maxwell Museum at UNM, the University of Idaho, the University of Nevada at Reno and the University of Concepcion in Chile, as well as the New Mexico Acequia Association and community members from El Rito, Arroyo Hondo and Valdez, Velarde and Alcalde and surrounding areas.

Acequias consist of gravity-fed earthen canals that divert stream water flow for distribution in fields. These systems lie at the center of a set of complex self-maintaining interactions between culture and nature that appear to enable drought survival and maintain other socio-cultural and ecosystem benefits.

"Acequia systems help maintain community identity and cohesion, economic sustainability, enhanced floodplain hydrologic functions, and wildlife habitat," Fernald said. "Contemporary acequia-based communities face new socio-economic and natural resource pressures that threaten their existence."

Population growth is accelerating the change from agricultural to residential land and water uses, while climate change threatens to bring warmer winters with less precipitation and earlier spring snowmelt.

"Traditional acequias create and sustain intrinsic linkages between human and natural systems that increase community and ecosystem resilience to climatic and socioeconomic stresses," Fernald said. "Greater knowledge about these interconnections and what can cause them to change or fail will be essential to determine how the communities relying on acequias can adapt to changing conditions."

This interdisciplinary research project along three rivers, El Rito, Rio Hondo and Rio Grande, will explore socio-economic and cultural linkages within and between acequia communities and associated landscapes; hydrologic linkages between surface water and groundwater in irrigated river valleys and contributing watersheds; and wildlife habitat and livestock grazing distribution connections between valley riparian areas and upland forests and grasslands.

A computerized system dynamics model will be used to quantify the role of acequias in hydrologic functions, socioeconomic structures and ecosystem processes, and simulate effects of climate and land-use stressors.

"We want to identify potential tipping points for acequia community survival," Fernald said of the integrative model. "Mapping will capture spatial linkages and help communicate the findings to a larger audience."

Once the study is completed, results will be made available to researchers, policymakers, local stakeholders and the general public through publications, presentations, Cooperative Extension Service documents and workshops.

Activities planned to communicate the study findings include participatory training for K-12 teachers of the region in order to educate their students of the inter-relationship of hydrology, communities and landscape, and a museum exhibit that will integrate spirituality and sense of place into presentations of community resource governance done through acequia associations.

"We are also planning to share information and ideas with international experts during a global comparative workshop and a sister study in Chile," said Fernald of the project that is being supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems Program. "Policy guidance resulting from this study should help maintain acequia communities and similar common-pool resource systems worldwide."