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Protecting New Mexico's Sacred Water: The Acequias and the New Mexico Legal Aid Land & Water Program

View north of Rio Grande from the Taos Junction Bridge in Northern New Mexico. A popular recreational area for drafting, hiking, biking and swimming.
Creator: Mona Makela Photography

In the arid landscapes of New Mexico, water is more than a resource; it is the lifeblood of communities, a sacred element that has sustained generations. At the heart of this intricate water management system are the acequias—community-operated irrigation canals that have been used for centuries. Today, these ancient waterways are at the center of a legal and cultural battle, defended passionately by the New Mexico Legal Aid Land & Water Program. 

A Legacy of Water Stewardship 

David Benavides, the Managing Attorney for the Land & Water Program at New Mexico Legal Aid, embodies the long-standing commitment to protecting water rights in New Mexico. Having started his career in 1990, Benavides has dedicated over three decades to this cause. “When I started, New Mexico Legal Aid was split into different organizations, including Northern New Mexico Legal Services,” Benavides recalls. “I was an odd bird because I had this special project. Every other attorney was a generalist, but I was one of the first specialists in Land and Water.” 

His passion for water law was kindled during his time at the University of New Mexico, where he studied natural resources law. Securing a fellowship allowed him to delve into the unique challenges faced by the acequias and land grants, integral parts of New Mexico’s agricultural heritage. 

Preserving a Cultural Heritage 

The acequias are more than just irrigation systems; they are a cornerstone of the local economy and culture. “These clients have the special skills that most residents of New Mexico don’t have,” Benavides explains. “They know how to produce their own food, engage in small-scale farming, and ranching—skills passed down for generations.” 

However, these rights are under constant threat from powerful economic and political forces that seek to appropriate the water for more lucrative uses. This is where the New Mexico Legal Aid Land & Water Program steps in, providing legal support to ensure these communities retain their ancestral rights. The program’s mission extends beyond individual aid; it is about empowering low-income communities to preserve their cultural and economic autonomy. 

The Challenge of Modern Water Rights 

Jonathan Hupp, another dedicated attorney with the Land & Water Program, brings a unique perspective to the team. Initially drawn to environmental law, Hupp’s journey led him from criminal defense in Arizona to farming in New Mexico. His personal experience with acequia irrigation on his farm deepened his appreciation for the cultural significance of these water systems. 

“In 2022, we started a little orchard and began to learn how to irrigate from the acequias,” Hupp shares. “It was fascinating to connect with the local acequia culture. When a job with New Mexico Legal Aid came up, I saw an opportunity to merge my legal skills with my growing passion for water rights.” 

A Legislative Victory and Its Aftermath 

A significant legislative victory in 2003 granted acequia communities decision-making power over water transfers, a crucial tool for protecting their water rights. “Right now, I have more water transfer cases coming before acequias than I’ve ever had at any one time before,” Benavides notes. This surge reflects the program’s success in helping communities adopt this power into their bylaws, ensuring they have a say in how their water is used. 

However, this victory has not eliminated challenges. There are continuous efforts by external entities to bypass these community decisions. “There are powerful political and economic forces that want that water,” Benavides warns. “They will try every legal trick in the book to see if they can bypass the community’s decision-making process.” 

A Future Rooted in Tradition 

The New Mexico Legal Aid Land & Water Program is more than a legal defense; it is a guardian of a way of life. By fighting for the acequias, the program ensures that these communities can continue to thrive, maintaining their cultural and economic independence. As Benavides puts it, “This is part of who they are and who they want to continue to be.” 

In a world where water is increasingly commodified, the acequias of New Mexico stand as a testament to a different approach—one that values community, sustainability, and tradition. Thanks to the unwavering efforts of the New Mexico Legal Aid Land & Water Program, this vital heritage will continue to flow, sustaining the land and its people for generations to come. 

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