MRGCD manages complicated ditch system

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When a Valencia County farmer gets ready to irrigate a field next spring, he might not be thinking about all the people who helped route the water to the land, or the hundreds of years of work it took to create the ditch system that brings water to each farm.

Jason W. Brooks-News-Bulletin photo: The amount of vegetation along some of the county’s ditchbanks is vast. One of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s tasks is dredging sand out of ditches and canals.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District was created in 1925 to manage the waters, ditches, canals and farmland of the Rio Grande.

The river used to flow much more unpredictably, with its banks sometimes inundated and swampy, and no more farmable than the driest areas. Routing the river’s water is a tradition as old as the Rio Grande itself, but the district allowed one agency to manage its use all the way along the river’s central New Mexico section.

One of the most valuable human resources available to the district are the ditch riders, who handle the distribution of water from the system into farmers’ fields.

Technically known as irrigation systems operators, they are full-time, year-round employees who put in many hours of hard work.

“We manage a lot of the water movement using a computer,” said the district’s public information officer, Tom Thorpe, regarding the area’s major control points. “But the ones out in the field, interacting with farmers the most, are the ditch riders.”

Chris Sichler, the Socorro County representative on the MRGCD board of directors, said ditch riders are the heart and soul of the river’s management.

“Riders don’t get much peace,” said Sichler. “In years like this one, where the water runs out early (around Aug. 31), the riders have to be really strict, and pay attention to detail. They have to be able to say ‘no’ and mean it.”

Johnny Paiz, Valencia County’s board representative, says the district “has to trust the riders, and their judgement.”

Each rider is responsible for certain ditches and the banks and roads, including observing the water flow, watching for obstructions or other issues that could affect water movement and damage, such as ditch breaks, overflows and flooding.

The MRGCD uses an herbicide for control of plant growth along ditches, laterals and canals, and an adhesive agent called a surfactant.

“The three missions of the district are irrigation, flood control and drainage,” said Thorpe. “We have a hydrologist (David Gensler) who helps us squeeze the water out of the sponge, so to speak.”

The district’s domain covers more than 100 miles of the length of the river, and overlaps Sandoval, Bernalillo, Valencia and Socorro counties, and municipalities, such as the cities of Albuquerque and Belen, the town of Peralta and the villages of Los Lunas and Bosque Farms.

There are also six pueblos, Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Sandia, Santa Ana and Isleta, that the MRGCD shares land with and open space and parks agencies.

The Bureau of Reclamation is one of many government agencies that interacts with the district.

“We all play in the same sandbox,” said Thorpe.

The ditch riders interact primarily with their supervisors and with farmers. Even though much of the water movement can be controlled and monitored by computer from one of the district’s offices, the riders are the faces of the MRGCD.

“The riders work alone much of the time, but they are a team, so they have to talk to each other,” said Dan Clouser, the Belen Division’s west side supervisor.

“There’s only one river, so everything that goes on with its water affects someone or something else downstream or upstream.”

Problems range from theft of copper and brass, solar panels and jetties to damage to district property. One September morning, Isleta dam tender Joseph Leyba was examining a gate damaged the night before — ripped off its hinges after being rammed by people who mistakenly thought someone had fallen into the water.

Clouser said he’s thankful to Thorpe and media outlets, such as the News-Bulletin. When information about water events or shortages is made known to the public, it makes the ditch riders’ job easier in dealing with farmers.

“Mostly, farmers are informed, and they cooperate with the riders,” said Clouser. “Yes, they sometimes think the riders are being lazy, or don’t understand why they can’t use water if they can see it. Sometimes, a rider will tell them no, and they’ll call me, and get the same answer.”

Since crops are on all sorts of planting and harvesting schedules (for example, corn requires water more often than alfalfa), it’s a complex puzzle. The computer monitoring system helps track the puzzle, and it’s available to the public on the district’s website, www.mrgcd.com.

On a Sunday afternoon in early September, almost two weeks after the Cochiti Dam reserves had run out, one measuring station near the Isleta Dam showed water moving at 95 cubic feet per second. It had been around 290 cfs a few weeks earlier.

For comparison, the river displacement near the Cochiti Dam was at 509 cfs at that moment, and it was only 12 cfs on a waterway near Tomé.

Steven Chavez recently ended a four-year run as a ditch rider in favor of becoming a backhoe operator for the district. He basically has a Monday-through-Friday day job, whereas the riders are on duty around the clock from March 1 to Oct. 1.

“You are pretty much married to the phone,” said Chavez. “It really took a toll on my family.”

November through February, the riders and the rest of the MRGCD focus on wintertime projects, many of which involve pouring concrete and other infrastructure repairs and improvements.

Eric Zamora, the former Valencia County manager who recently joined the district as its Belen division manager, said the riders’ challenges are typical of what the entire district must conquer.

“We are trying to accomplish the impossible, without many resources,” said Zamora. “Riders are on the front lines.

Frank Lovato, a ditch rider for six years, said the riders can only deliver water when the supply is equal to or greater than the demand.

“Crops are on different cycles, and when we get 100-degree days, that’s just one of many adjustments, because fields dry out faster,” said Lovato. “And there are a lot of entities controlling how much water is available.”

Felix Baca, who has been a ditch rider for five years, said some farmers get upset, especially when they’re misinformed or are getting answers they don’t want to hear.

That’s why communication is so critical.

“Sometimes, things don’t work out,” said Baca. “But we always try our absolute best to meet all the farmers’ needs.”


-- Email the author at jbrooks@news-bulletin.com.