Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Bountiful mountain Water Gushes Into Placitas

Despite heat, experts say this season’s runoff is going to be a “really good year”


The rising sun is barely lighting mountaintops when mayordomo Harvey Vigil opens a valve at the Ciruela reservoir releasing water into the Las Acequias de Placitas irrigation system.

While his action reduces pressure in the spring-fed dirt pond and flushes the outflow pipe, it only adds to the flow from springs higher in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains coursing through a second ditch cut around the pond.

"All nine springs are running," said Vigil, the system mayordomo. "It's crazy."

A year ago water flowed into Ciruela at about 23 gallons per minute (gpm) and irrigators could only water from it and the Oso pond once every other week. Now water arrives at 10-times that rate just from one spring and the overflow from those filling the enclosed tanks of the Placitas village water system.

"We're having a really, really good year," Vigil said. "We did our ditch cleaning in March and were running water at the end of March.

"This year I water every day."

The acequia system, like those across the state, is considered a subset of state government with an elected three-member board, elected mayordomo or irrigation manager, and a hired operator for the domestic system. The mayordomo's work includes operating the main valves, scheduling individual water deliveries and rallying the parcientes, water shareholders, for the annual spring ditch cleaning.

Beyond water, Vigil worries about the future of the communal system of water sharing that bound villagers together for their mutual benefit. At 55, he wonders how to involve younger people in maintaining a centuries-old cultural practice.

"It's our past and our future," he said.

Las Acequias serves about 180 families around Placitas village and is a rare hybrid among the state's traditional community ditches in that it provides both irrigation and domestic water. The springs and ponds are within the San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant and are closed to public access.

The bountiful water in a time of extended drought and rising temperatures is the result of heavy snowpack that lingered on the north face of the Sandias and soaked in. Even promising snows in recent winters often fell victim to evaporation through combinations of wind and early high temperatures.

Nearby the Las Huertas Community Ditch provides irrigation from Las Huertas Creek, which drains a section of the Cibola National Forest, also is having a good year, according to Jon Couch, one of its elected commissioners and a former mayordomo.

"Normally we're waiting for the springs way up at the headwaters of the creek, but this year we were getting good rain and snow in the late spring," he said. "So it started filling in late April.

"It's dwindling now, but there's still enough water to irrigate."

Couch said the 20 families on the ditch mostly water private gardens and fruit orchards. Since the ditch currently lacks a reservoir, residents may soon be relying on rain or wells once the creek flow slows to a trickle or stops, he added.

A good monsoon that keeps the creek flowing into September would provide the first full irrigation season since some time in the 1980s when there was water into October, he said.

The association tolerated leaks from the stone face of its 1860 storage tank for decades before overhauling and lining the dirt reservoir several years ago. But an attempt to layer stones on top of the lining created new leaks sufficient to drain the tank.

Replacement work is going out for bids shortly with hopes of completing it before winter, Couch said. There was sufficient spring runoff this year for the creek to flow under Interstate 25 and past Algodones to reach the Rio Grande for the first time in many years, he added.

Below the Las Huertas ditch where the creek turns west toward the Rio Grande, five families remain on the Acequia de Rosa de la Castilla although a lack of water has inhibited irrigation for years. A spring there, reported to be producing 100 gpm in 1998, popped this spring for the first time in recent memory.

What the systems have in common is a heavy reliance on melting snow running off or seeping through fractured geology until springs pop.

"I expect that will taper off, and then we'll have the monsoon," Vigil said.

The National Weather Service considers monsoon season to run June 15-Sept. 15. That's when circulation around highs and lows near New Mexico set up a monsoon, a stream of moist air rambling across the state from the Pacific or the Gulf of Mexico.

Much of the state receives the bulk of its rain during the monsoon.

For now, however, a high-pressure system parked just east of New Mexico has created a broad heat dome bringing near-record high day and night temperatures. The heat dome also is blocking moisture trying to move up from the south.

"It's a very weak monsoon," meteorologist Michael Anand of the National Weather Service Albuquerque Forecast Office told the Signpost. "Most of it is still down in Mexico.

"We’re still looking at a chance of showers and storms this week, but it's not very deep moisture."

And in the short term it's not favoring northern New Mexico but the Gila country in the southwest, Anand said.

The weather service officially recorded its first 100-degree temperature of the year just before 4 p.m. on July 9. But that was at the forecast office perched on the mesa at the western end of the Albuquerque International Sunport about 500 feet above the Rio Grande.

That's not to say people hadn't already logged 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the Albuquerque area, Anand said.

"Basically under a heat dome, upper level subsidence, sinking air, compresses and heats up," he continued. "Bernalillo probably saw 100 late last week when it was 99 at the Sunport."

A fact sheet on the forecast office website shows Albuquerque over the last 30 years rarely endured more than five days of 100 or more degrees from June through August. In 1994 a dozen reached at least 100 including the current record high of 107 degrees on June 26.

For seven years, the last in 2006, there were no official 100-degree days. (Online:

An updated monsoon outlook for northern and central New Mexico forecasts a late monsoon starting this month with below average precipitation and above average temperatures. With moderate confidence, the weather service forecasts temperatures still above average in August and September with near average rainfall.

And then…

"Forecast confidence is high for a relatively abrupt change sometime in mid to late September toward wetter and cooler than average weather," according to the monsoon outlook. Attribute that to a combination of the El Niño climate pattern, a warming of the eastern Pacific that affects winds over New Mexico, and a phenomenon called the Madden-Julian Oscillation, an eastward-moving disturbance in the west-central Pacific that can push tropical moisture our way.


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