a fiefdom west of Edith

By Walker Boyd

MRGCD Sign by teofilo on Flickr.

In high school (and, I suppose, today) I always had a certain contrarian streak: I enjoyed being the devil’s advocate, both because it garnered bemused attention from the cute girls who, because of smarts or neuroses, still paid attention in ‘modern European history’, even after we’d all gotten into colleges or been hired by electricians (this being the final semester of our senior year). One day, I remember staking out the position that only people who paid taxes should be allowed to vote in America. This gave rise to a lot of bemused arguments in the class; many were horrified that the idea would even come up; no one seemed to have an adequate retort.

But if a system of voting where only taxpayers or property owners were allowed to vote sounds feudal, almost medieval, that’s because it is. But you don’t have to consult your old history coursebooks in order to find such systems and discover how they operated. Albuquerqueans (or ‘Burqueños’ if you will) already have just such a system in their own backyard: the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. Responsible the distribution of surface water for agriculture and recreation between Cochiti reservoir and Socorro, the district is more powerful than you might think. It assesses property owners within the boundaries of its flood control constructions for its own operation.

Only people who own property on the ‘flood plains’ of the Rio Grande are assessed, and at first glance it seems rightfully so that they should be the only ones who are allowed to vote in its elections.

But only those who own property in the conservation district are actually allowed to vote. Last week, elections for the MRGCD’s board took place, with a grand total of 3,842 ballots cast. It’s difficult to estimate the total population of people living within the district’s lines, but one would think that an area encompassing the entirety of the Rio Grande from the Cochiti Dam to the San Acacia Diversion near Socorro (4 counties with a total population of 888,560) would have slightly higher voter turnout.

But okay, if this is really just about farmers getting their pre-existing water rights and urban populations having nice, pleasant ditches to run next to before they head downtown for work, then the issue wouldn’t be so important.

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The Law of the Ditch

What are the politics of water? It is an element that fundamentally defines New Mexican notions of ‘the common good’. How does the law, political debate, the economy, and the historical elements of New Mexico’s diverse population influence the debate and its outcomes? This is the second part of an ongoing investigation into politics of water in New Mexico.

Llano de la Yegua lies just northeast of Peñasco in Taos county. Emanuele Corso has the distinction of being the only non-Hispanic Mayordomo in the Llano. “My predecessor was letting one guy take more water than he deserved; the guy slipped him a six pack or whatever every so often as a bribe. People got frustrated enough with the situation they decided to take radical action. When the guy found that the neighbors had appointed me, he was aghast. ‘You appointed a gabacho?’, he asked everyone. ‘He’s not a gabacho, they said. He’s a Sicilian. And that’s why we elected him!'” Emanuele breaks into an easy laugh. His walk is a little unsteady, but he still hops over the little acequia running across his five-acre plot with the energy of experience.

Water was the first law in New Mexico.

The first code of laws recognized by the United States in the new territory of New Mexico, known as the ‘Kearny Code’, left the existing Mexican and Spanish regulations in place: “The laws heretofore in force concerning water courses…shall continue in force except so much of said laws as require the ayuntamientos of the different villages to regulate these subjects, which duties and powers are transferred to and enjoined upon alcaldes and prefects of the several counties.”

Emanuele takes me up to the top of the valley, where the Santa Barbera river spills through into the meadows below. The acequia madre that feeds from the Santa Barbera is divided into three venas. “The uppermost vena which diverts water to my land is called mano Rocindo”, he says, after the Mayordomo who made it about 120 years ago. “Since we’re the highest up on the river, we have to make sure we’re responsible with our use.” He shows me a large, welded gate that diverted water towards his property. “It goes over two miles, and they picked a spot in the river that’s just the perfect amount higher than the upper-most farm. I wish I knew how they did it.” Emanuele looks concerned over the debris. “We really need to call the mayordomo and get him to clean up this stuff, it’s his job…” He seems undecided whether or not to throw his walking stick on the bank and wade in himself to pick out the branches and leaves that have become caught in the gate.

the main head-gate for the acequia madre


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