The Dilemma of Being A Small Urban Irrigator

I was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico and proudly claim the title of “desert baby”. I am deeply afraid of the ocean and large bodies of water, but my heart sings during a drenching rainstorm. I was raised to conserve water and to be conscious of its limited supply. I love New Mexico and its hard to imagine living anywhere else. 

I currently live in the Near North Valley, and I have 1/3 of an acre which I irrigate from the Griegos Lateral. I have giant elm trees, ash trees, mulberry and Arizona cypress trees. I also have many fruit trees including, apricot, apple, cherry, peach, plum, pluot, and pomegranate. The first time I irrigated it felt like a miracle. I could almost hear the gratitude of the trees soaking up the much-needed water. 

On my block, all of the properties on the south side of my street are small urban irrigators like me. On the north side of the street the irrigation was cut off many decades ago and the contrast is stark. The south side is shaded and cool with massive trees, the north side is all dirt lots with few remaining trees. The north side is the embodiment of aridity. I am grateful to live on the watered side of the street. 

Every spring, I work hard to clear my ditches and am eager with anticipation of the first irrigation of the season. In mid-summer my anxiety builds as the thermometer increases, but that anxiety is washed away when I open my headgate, and see the water pour onto the thirsty land. While irrigating is hard work, the water satiates my soul and sooths a deep-seeded fear of not having enough. And then the guilt kicks in. Shouldn’t I be conserving more water? Shouldn’t our precious water only be used to grow food crops? How can I justify irrigating my urban property? 

Urban Albuquerque ditch

As a water rights consultant and a Water Advocate I know that basically every drop of irrigation water I am using is increasing our compact debt to Texas. I know that my water use is not sustainable. I know that the system is going to fail unless we take drastic measures to change our behaviors. Alternatively, I could use a hose and use Albuquerque Bernalillo County Utility Authority (ABCWUA) water, but I also know that our groundwater is limited and so watering from water provided by ABCWUA is also not the answer. I try to remind myself that by irrigating I am also recharging the aquifer. But isn’t that just another excuse for doing what I want to do, which is to keep irrigating? 

Like climate change, while individuals have a responsibility to do their part, it is the institutions that need to step up and make the big changes. Should I stop watering my trees, using about 1 acre-foot of water per year, while the proposed Santolina development will need approximately 14,000 acre-feet per year, while growth and development remain unchecked, while we grow crops for livestock feed instead of food for humans? How do we balance economic growth with a dwindling water supply? How do we balance the needs of all water users? How do we decide what is most important and therefore should get the most water? 

The trees on my property keep the land and the adjacent street much cooler in the summer. When I drive home in the evening on a summer day it is not uncommon for the temperature to drop by more than 10 degrees as I pull into the driveway. It is common knowledge that green spaces are critical in reducing the temperatures in urban areas. Would even more water be used for air conditioning and cooling if the big trees were to die? How do we balance carbon reduction with water needs?

I don’t know how old my biggest trees are, but I would guess at a minimum they are 50 years old. Do I not also have a responsibility to these elder beings to keep them alive and as healthy as possible? But don’t I also have a responsibility to future generations to ensure they have enough water to survive? What about the responsibility to ensure the environment, flora, and fauna are getting their fair share of the water? 

I will do my best to keep conserving water, to collect rainwater and to use greywater but I will also keep irrigating my big trees as long as I can justify that water use. I really don’t know how long that will be as each year my list of questions and my guilty conscious grow larger.  

I have so many questions and no real answers. Reduced water supply is a complicated issue, and it will require a complicated solution with buy-in from all the different types of water users. I hope for a future where we can share water in equitable way where everyone’s needs are met. I know a solution exists and I hope you will join the Water Advocates in finding it, by continuing to come to the !Agua es Vida: Do your Part! Speakers Series. While we work to towards finding that resilient water future, I will continue to stand on my acequia and feel gratitude for each drop of water and for the life that is sustains, but I will also be grieving for the water I know will not always be there.

Griegos Lateral


  1. Andrew Stone on March 8, 2024 at 1:55 pm

    I’m a fellow Middle Rio Grande Valley irrigator and I am going to try and assuage your guilt, Brittany. The teacher, poet and fellow parciante Henrique de la Madrid calls our beautiful Burque “The Emerald City”. And it is glowing green because of the hard work, year in and year out, of thousands of us small irrigators, we are not wasting water, we are recharging the aquifer which feeds the wells that waters the trees throughout the city. We are growing the trees along the acequias that keep our valley cool.

    We are providing urban habitat for the wildlife. Let us not be gaslit by the true wasters of water: fracked gas wells – not only does each well use 4 million gallons but 2 million of those gallons are taken out of the water cycle by being injected far below the surface. And the 2 million recovered are tainted with all sorts of chemicals and radioactive isotopes. Go solar, drive an EV – and learn how you can electrify your home with the provisions in the IRA/BIL that provide tax credits, grants and rebates:

Leave a Comment