USACE Acequia Rehabilitation and Restoration Program

History of Acequias in New Mexico

Irrigation systems in New Mexico, known as acequias, date back to the 16th century Spanish settlement of New Mexico. The acequias were built even before the colonists constructed churches and their operation was component of Spanish Law. Acequia laws and traditions have been handed down through generations and many political systems into the 21st century. This 500-year-old community system is now threatened by a modem value system that sees water as a commodity rather than a community resource. In addition, many acequia associations in New Mexico are battling developers needing water for non-agricultural purposes. Consequently, an integral part of the New Mexico landscape may be lost. These battles are in addition to the operational difficulties inherent in keeping these extremely old systems working. As such, in 1986 legislation was passed to aid in the preservation of acequias.

Acequia Program – Water Resources Development Act – Section 1113 Overview

The Water Resources Development Act of 1986, "Acequia Irrigation System," authorized "such measures are necessary" to protect and restore acequia systems. This act essentially established the USACE Acequia Restoration and Rehabilitation Program. Under the Act, the restoration and preservation of the systems were declared to have cultural and historic value to the region.

Community irrigation ditch systems in New Mexico (acequias), provide irrigation water to about 160,000 acres on an estimated 12,000 small family sustenance farms and date from the sixteenth century. There are approximately one thousand acequias throughout the state.

The acequias, which have both historic and social significance, play a major role in the local economies throughout the state. At the most critical times for irrigation, high flood flows from the spring snowmelt at the beginning of irrigation season and from intense summer thunderstorms during the peak of irrigation cause structural damage or complete loss of ditch structures needed for delivering water to crops and livestock.

The program's purpose is to provide technical and financial assistance to Acequia Commissions or Community Ditch Associations for rehabilitation and improvements of their acequia systems. The work is to protect and restore the river diversion structures and associated channels attendant to the operations of the community ditch and acequia systems. Since 1987, USACE has assisted in the restoration of 35 acequias, some built as far back as 1710. In total, more than 2,400 acequia users have benefited from these projects.

Program Structure and Legislative Authority

USACE has a Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) with the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer – Interstate Stream Commission (NMISC). Upon request by an Acequia Commission or Community Ditch Association, USACE will coordinate with the NMISC to evaluate and prioritize the potential project and budget for funding by both the state and federal government. The Acequia Restoration and Rehabilitation Program is governed by legislation found within the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 1986, whereas the federal government pays 75% of the planning and construction costs with the local sponsor responsible for 25%.

With the recent implementation of WRDA 2022, section 1113 (d)(2)(B) Special Rule, the standard non-federal share of the cost of carrying out work shall be 25%, except that in the case of a measure benefitting an economically disadvantaged community (as defined by the Secretary under section 160 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2020 (33 U.S.C. 2201 note)), including economically disadvantaged communities located in urban and rural areas, the federal share of the cost of carrying out such measure shall be 90%.

The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2022, section 341, further provides an amendment increasing the authorization amount of the Acequia Program and authorized USACE to protect and restore community ditch and acequia systems belonging to federally recognized Indian Tribes in New Mexico (as defined in section 4 of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (25 U.S.C. 5304)), and enacts a non-federal cost share requirement of 10% when benefitting an economically disadvantaged community. A separate, stand-alone agreement will be executed with the federally recognized Indian Tribe when such work is determined to be qualified and necessary.

Current Projects:

  • Farmer’s Mutual Ditch Reach 1  
  • La Joya Acequia
  • Turley-Manzanarez Ditch Company
  • Rio Chama Acequia Association – Chamita Diversion