New Mexico's Ancient Irrigation Systems Help Protect Scarce Water Supply

The major rivers of the Southwest are hurting as snow becomes increasingly scarce in the Rocky Mountains. Scientists who study climate change warn such conditions are the new normal.

But there’s encouraging news in northern New Mexico, where an ancient irrigation system has survived for hundreds of years.

Spring marks an annual ritual on the farms of the upper Rio Grand Valley in New Mexico. It's when communities gather to clean out their local irrigation canals. In the town of Dixon a team of 32 workers in bandanas and work boots shovel dry grass and leaves from the bottom of a dirt ditch. A supervisor stands above them and hollers a roll call.

These hand-dug ditches are called acequias. It's a style of irrigation that has survived since the arrival of the first Spanish settlers. The network of canals branch out from neighboring rivers like arteries. Cottonwood trees taller than telephone poles grow beside them. Workers clear out debris the same way their ancestors did, with shovels and biceps.

Once clean, the acequias can receive river water. This year, supervisor Donald Atencio says the preparation is happening two to four weeks earlier than usual.

"We are one of the last acequias cleaning out this year already," Atencio said. "The other seven ditches already have water."

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