July 25, 2018

Luján Legislation Recognizes Traditional Land Uses in New Mexico

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Today, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) introduced legislation to provide greater consultation between the federal government and New Mexico’s land grants and acequias. For the first time, land grants and acequias in New Mexico would also receive recognition of the traditional uses of their natural resources.

“New Mexico’s acequias and land grants have been part of our communities, our families, and our way of life for generations. My family was raised to respect and cherish these life-giving waters. Growing up, I worked with my grandpa, my dad, and my brother to maintain our acequias, and still do today,” said Luján. “I’m proud to introduce legislation that formally recognizes how land grants and acequias depend on and care for our resources because I know firsthand their importance to our state. My legislation will also help ensure that the federal government consults with land grants and acequias when taking actions that might impact local communities.”

From the 17th to the mid-19th centuries, the Governments of Spain and Mexico made grants of land to individuals, groups, and communities throughout the Southwest United States to promote settlement in frontier lands. These land grants, now known as land grant-mercedes, are an important part of the New Mexico’s culture and history. The “Land Grant and Acequia Traditional Use Recognition Act” will:

  • Ensure that land management agencies make land grant-mercedes aware of changes to management plans and any impacts of federal actions.
  • Instruct the federal government to issue guidance on permitting and permissible uses of these lands to the land grant-mercedes.
  • Provide better information when land grant-mercedes work through the National Environmental Policy Act process.  
  • Ensure that the federal government appropriately recognizes spiritual and cultural sites.
  • Create a process for New Mexico’s land grants to establish their historical boundaries and provide pathways for acquiring land that falls within those boundaries when the federal government disposes of land.

“The introduction of the Land Grant and Acequia Traditional Use Recognition and Consultation Act is a positive step forward in addressing longstanding issues affecting New Mexico communities, which stem from the adjudication process required by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,” said the New Mexico Land Grant Council. “For more than a century Spanish and Mexican land grant communities in the Southwest have struggled to ensure recognition, protection and access to natural resources located on their former common lands now managed by the federal government. These natural resources play a vital role in maintaining traditional use practices that sustain the socio-economic and cultural integrity of many New Mexico communities.”

Water delivery systems known as acequias, or community ditches, are centuries-old systems used for water distribution dating back to the 1500s, for farming, for nourishment, and sustaining a way of life. In New Mexico, acequias are governed by a traditional form of water governance, known as Acequias, that are political subdivisions of the State and are composed of a board of private land owners, called parciantes and led by a mayordomo, that are responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the infrastructure and for monitoring and administering surface water rights along the acequia. These Acequias have created a cultural landscape and way of life centered around local agriculture, water governance, and a custom of sharing limited resources.

Luján’s bill clarifies permit requirements for activities undertaken by acequias and land grants on their land, making it easier for land grants and acequias to maintain their traditions. This bill also codifies a previous legal ruling that determined consultation and special use permits are not required for maintenance and improvements within the historic easement for Acequias.

"We strongly support the Land Grant and Acequia Traditional Use Recognition and Consultation Act, introduced by Representative Ben Ray Lujan, which recognizes the significance of community land grants and acequias to the culture, economy, and agricultural heritage of New Mexico," said Paula Garcia, Executive Director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. "The Act is an affirmation of historic rights of acequias on federal public lands to maintain, improve, and replace irrigation works. This will strengthen our ability to keep water flowing through our acequias, New Mexico's centuries-old irrigation systems that support the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers."