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Tradition and Technology:
Innovative Community Collaboration in New Mexico

Contributed by Hadley and Peter Arnold, Directors of the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University in Burbank, California.


Three students walking along an acequia.
Three students walking along an acequia. Photo Credit: Arid Lands Institute
American colleges and universities are working closely with their neighborhoods and community partners to create stronger, healthier communities. HUD’s Office of University Partnerships (OUP), through its Hispanic-Serving Institutions Assisting Communities (HSIAC) program has facilitated numerous partnerships that are successfully addressing some critical social and economic issues across this country. HSIAC is helping colleges and universities integrate community engagement themes into their curriculum, academic studies, and student activities. As a result, educators and students working on community projects are gaining practical experience as well as powerful insights into the nature of urban problems and their solutions. The work of Woodbury University students in the New Mexico acequias is an example of such collaboration.

The credo of northern New Mexico is agua es vida — water is life — and nowhere is this truer than in acequia communities. Acequias—the traditional gravity-fed system of ditches introduced to New Mexico by Spanish colonists and combined with indigenous irrigation techniques to create small-scale, self-governing irrigation communities still at work today — are the lifeblood of northern New Mexico's culture and economy.

Students from Woodbury University's Arid Lands Institute (ALI) in Burbank, California, travel each summer to learn from acequia leaders of the Dixon/Embudo community in the Lower Embudo Valley of New Mexico. As part of an effort funded by an HSIAC grant, urban design students from ALI's Summer Field Station work alongside farmers to identify the forces that shape, and threaten, Dixon/Embudo's water, land, culture, and economy. Together they design strategies that will sustain the physical and cultural life of the acequia community. Their work is to map, model, and analyze the dynamic interrelationship of perennial streamflows in the Rio Embudo (a tributary of the Rio Grande), fluctuating local groundwater tables, intermittent flooding of arroyos, and the 10 working acequias of the Lower Embudo Valley.

Community leader and acequia farmer Estevan Arellano serves as mentor and liaison to the group, enriching the collaboration with a 3-day multidisciplinary symposium, Celebrando las Acequias. This year’s Celebrando brought together farmers, architects, hydrologists, engineers, historians, archeologists, artists, and local food advocates to explore the roots and future of communal irrigation societies. A weekend full of presentations and workshops attracted 300 visitors.

Over the course of several weeks, mayordomos, commissioners, and parciantes — member farmers of the ditch associations — provide students with expert instruction, introducing students to the acequia system and the challenges facing it, including changes in land use, poor maintenance, erosion and sedimentation, non-point-source pollution, invasive species, and nuisance species such as gophers and beavers.

Whether inside the Misión or outside in the ditches, fields, and arroyos, the work environment of ALI’s Summer Field Station is one of unlikely pairings: aging farmers alongside young urban dwellers; shovels and wading boots in combination with digital GPS surveying units; oral traditions confirmed by advanced research-grade geospatial information system (GPS) software. Combined, they create high-resolution models that will serve as long-term planning tools for the community.

This year's students placed particular focus on the inch-by-inch mapping of historic ditches. Two key planning documents — a locally produced Watershed Management Plan and the Rio Arriba County Comprehensive Plan—identify acequia mapping as a critical task in advancing land, water, culture, and economy stewardship goals. Student teams and their leaders mapped acequias that have never been mapped before.

Students used commercial-grade GPS survey units to walk the centerline of ditches at set intervals, taking hundreds of precise elevational and sectional readings. Students photographed the condition of the ditch extensively, with each photo registered to a standardized horizon line. When projected in sequence, these photographs allow community members to, in effect, "walk" the full length of their own ditch from start to finish, many for the first time.

Mapping and modeling 8.5 miles of ditch every 30 feet, students created high-resolution models of the physical structure and condition of each ditch and its relationship to the river, groundwater, and arroyos. Collaborative analysis with acequia community members and a consultant correlated ditch conditions with contributing factors, small and large—from changing land use patterns to extended drought periods and decreased snowpack.

In late July, students presented these analytic models to the community for discussion. The visualizations and accompanying discussion made vulnerable areas clear and resulted in an agreement to focus on four high-priority areas: vegetation-choked ditches, poorly maintained easements, erosion-prone arroyo slopes, and flood-prone public spaces.

The collaboration continues in fall 2011 as student teams from Woodbury focus on these four critical priorities. Students will generate designs for small-scale infrastructures and guidelines for their fabrication and deployment. Farmers and leaders of the Lower Embudo Valley will continue to offer advice and to review the design strategies. Together, students and farmers will produce a handbook for members of the Dixon/Embudo community as well as other communities in Rio Arriba County. The handbook of design strategies will serve as a shared resource for managing the linked relationships between water systems and a vibrant local economy. We look forward to the completed handbook and will report on it here when it becomes available.


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