Protecting New Mexico’s water democracy

Community members are defending their water rights and traditional practices, with support from AFSC.

In New Mexico, acequias have long served as a lifeline in the desert climate. Acequias are communal irrigation canals that bring water from rivers to homes and farms. They nourish gardens, crops, and wildlife.  

Acequias also support traditional, sustainable growing practices. The system is democratically controlled by community-elected commissions made up of irrigators. These are residents who own land along the acequias and thus have the right to use them.   

But this unique water democracy faces big challenges. Developers put pressure on available water supplies by building golf courses and suburban sprawl. Climate change-driven drought has made water less reliable in some years. And underfunding from the state has made it difficult for communities to maintain these vital canals.    

Since the 1970s, AFSC’s New Mexico Program has supported communities in defending their right to water. We have also coordinated events to celebrate the cultural and spiritual traditions honoring this vital resource. 

Here are some of the ways we’ve worked with communities to protect this water democracy:   

Helping residents declare their water rights 


AFSC’s Angelina Lopez-Brody notarizes a community member's declaration of water rights. Photo: AFSC/New Mexico

In New Mexico’s South Valley, many people have been irrigating their properties for generations. Yet they may not have official papers documenting their right to use water from the acequia. AFSC is helping them navigate the complicated process of filing their declarations with the state. We are also providing free notarization services as one more way to make the process more accessible. That gives these community members legal standing should a developer or others try to usurp those rights.  

Accompanying irrigators in seeking accountability  

Recently, we assisted a group of irrigators pursuing a court case seeking accountability for damage to an acequia and lost access to water. Thanks to our collective efforts, we were able to secure the support of the district attorney and we hope to have a resolution to this case later this year. Through this work, these community members decided to get more involved in their acequia association, and four of them were elected to serve as their acequia’s commissioners.   

Stopping developers from stealing water 

Over the past decade, AFSC has organized with partners and community members to stop a developer from diverting acequia waters to build a large-scale development. The project would have created sprawl into a fragile ecosystem without the infrastructure or population growth to sustain it. Our coalition packed every public meeting held by the County Planning Commission and City Council on the issue, speaking out loud and clear against the development. As a result of our yearslong efforts, the final approved project has been delayed almost 10 years, state legislators funded a study about the impact of the proposed development that confirmed our concerns, and we may still be able to prevent this sprawl. 

Educating the public about water democracy 

Every year, we organize events that celebrate the vital role that water plays in the lives, history, and culture of the people of New Mexico. In mid-May, we coordinate a multifaith Día de San Ysidro celebration with community partners to honor the patron saint of farmers and his wife, Santa María de la Cabeza, the patron saint of drought. Community members put flower petals in the acequia as we start a procession, allowing the flowers to move with us in unison.  

Last year, we also worked with community partners to create an educational acequia exhibit. More than 1,500 people visited the exhibit, including school groups, university students, recreational clubs, and more. As a result, the City of Albuquerque requested the exhibit be shown through their facilities.    


AFSC's acequia exhibit educated the public about New Mexico's water democracy. 

Today more than ever, we can learn so much from New Mexico’s water democracy about working together to steward our land and resources, especially in the face of climate change. The traditional acequia system ensures that everyone shares in the abundance when water is bountiful. We also share in scarcity so that no one bears the burden alone.  

Caring for the acequia system that gives us so much requires us to pay close attention to the natural cycles of the earth and use our resources wisely. We are committed to doing that work for generations to come.