Drought Spurs Native Farmers To Use Non-Traditional Irrigation Methods

The new irrigation system helps the Santo Domingo Pueblo's water supply go farther. More than 300 acres of farmland that used to lay fallow is now supporting a variety of crops.
By Carrie Jung, KUNM
September 26, 2013
Carrie Jung
Water Resources Manager Jonathan Garcia demonstrates how farmers use the tribe's new pipe-based irrigation system.

SANTO DOMINGO PUEBLO, N.M. — Severe drought has been gripping much of the Southwest for years, with New Mexico getting the worst of it. And the lack of water is forcing many Native American farmers to consider more non-traditional methods of irrigation.

On a late summer morning at the Santo Domingo Pueblo just south of Santa Fe, Water Resources Manager Jonathan Garcia grabs a map and the keys to a large SUV. He’s headed to the reservation’s agricultural land for a closer look at new irrigation techniques.

As he drives, there seems to be nothing but thriving crops of corn, chile and alfalfa. But Garcia said the landscape hasn’t always been this lush.

"This right here, used to sit fallow for a long long time," he said. "The field just had some little knobs on it due to wind carrying the sand and what not… tumbleweeds were growing in there"

Since drought set in, Garcia said, the tribe’s traditional earthen ditch irrigation system wasn’t cutting it, leaving many farmers without enough water to work their fields.

And because the drought isn’t expected to let up anytime soon, the decision was made to upgrade. The tribe installed a pipe-based irrigation system on about 10 percent of their fields. Something Garcia says was a hard sell to his tribal council that was hesitant to stray from tradition.

"We were so used to this open ditch system and how it’s culturally there and traditionally there. And I can’t go into details in that," he said.

That’s because Pueblo culture doesn’t allow outsiders to know the details of tribal traditions.

Garcia said the important thing was, "They were willing to change. The decision maker was that water will be more available to the southern farmers than in years past."

So with some grant money and assistance from the Bureau of Reclamation and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pueblo officials got to work uprooting the traditional irrigation ditches.

They’re also known as acequias, and they’ve been around for centuries in the Southwest, used by everyone from Spanish settlers to Native American tribes. They’re basically engineered canals that carry river water to fields. And many continue to provide a primary source of water to farmers and ranchers.

The only problem is, it’s not the most efficient of systems, especially when water is scarce.

The new pipes, however, are far better.

NRCS spokesman Mark Smith said the new system is much more efficient because it cuts down on issues with evaporation, loss of water simply flowing downstream, and leakage through channel walls. Only the amount of water needed is used, and the rest stays in the pipes.

And while the tribe is still using flood irrigation like they did with their traditional system, Smith said they're now able to use water in a much more efficient way, and grow much more with less water.

Smith explains that with the new system, it takes Pueblo farmers about three hours to water a field, compared to the three days the ditch method required.

Carrie Jung
Once covered with berms and piles of tumble weeds, this field can now support crops of corn and alfalfa.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Shawn Bennett said the move to efficiency is a good thing for farmers, as these extremely dry conditions are expected to stick around awhile longer.

Bennett said the long-term forecasts for New Mexico show below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures.

And despite recent flooding and heavy rains, he said New Mexico is still firmly in the grips of drought.

"We have this other circulation which climate scientists say is creating the longer term drought impacts, and it lasts for decades," Bennett said.

Back on the Santo Domingo Pueblo, Garcia said response to the new irrigation system has been nothing but positive.

"It’s only been two years, but in two years we’ve improved this almost 300 acres. Ultimately it’s for the betterment of the community members," he said.

Garcia said while more water would be nice, better efficiency is the next best thing.