Opinion: Remembering Senator Carlos Cisneros

By Paula Garcia
Posted 10/3/19

It is impossible to discuss the acequia movement in New Mexico during the past three decades without including Senator Carlos Cisneros as a major player. He was one of the …

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Opinion: Remembering Senator Carlos Cisneros


It is impossible to discuss the acequia movement in New Mexico during the past three decades without including Senator Carlos Cisneros as a major player. He was one of the longest-serving senators and his passing came as a sudden shock to his friends, loved ones and supporters. He was a staunch advocate of acequias during his 34-year tenure as a lawmaker, sponsoring numerous bills and memorials for acequias over the years in close partnership and solidarity with the state's acequia leadership.

The first time I met Senator Cisneros, he was walking in a parade for the Mora fiestas sometime in the 1980s. Years later, as the new executive director of the New Mexico Acequias Association in 1998, I met him again as chairman of the Senate Conservation Committee, the gateway through which all water bills must pass. Over the years, he would be the key sponsor of acequia and water bills, many of them with then Speaker Ben Luján of Nambé.

He became not only an ally in our acequia cause but also a close friend. I learned a little bit about his personal history, including that he was the youngest in a large family and his parents died when he was a boy. He was raised mostly by an older sister. His parents operated a ranch and he remained connected to Acequia del Llano in Questa. Although he was not an active rancher, his roots in the land shaped his values as a legislator and eventually as one of New Mexico's greatest acequia advocates.

He started his role in leadership with his union at the mine in Questa. He was a welder, eventually earning a leadership role in the union. He became a Taos County Commissioner and was later appointed to the state Senate where he would continue to serve for over three decades. He once told me that when he started as a senator, he would work the graveyard shift at the mine and drive to Santa Fe for the legislative session the next morning. He continued to be a staunch supporter of labor and unions during his long career as a lawmaker.

Our current NMAA president, Harold Trujillo, often credits Carlos Cisneros with being a co-founder of the organization since he passed a memorial in 1989 commemorating the founding of the organization. It wasn't until the late 1990s, when NMAA began to be engaged in legislative advocacy, that the senator would begin passing a string of legislation that would reshape the water policy framework in New Mexico by strengthening the water management and governance powers of acequias.

Perhaps his most significant pieces of acequia legislation were those that he passed in 2003, with Speaker Luján as the co-sponsor in the House of Representatives, [providing]: 1. acequia authority to approve or deny water transfer applications; and 2. acequia authority to operate water banks to internally reallocate water rights and prevent loss for nonuse. These two bills were a historic affirmation of the importance of acequias in their respective communities.

Following these bills, Senator Cisneros also created a funding stream for the Acequia and Community Ditch Education Program, which to this day is a major funding source for NMAA's education and outreach work. Since establishment of the program, NMAA has worked directly with over 500 acequias in updating their bylaws and developing infrastructure plans.

Even when acequia bills encountered opposition from strong interests, such as real estate developers or industry, he remained steadfast in his support of acequias. One of our elders said about him, "El Carlos no se raja." ("Carlos never gives up.")

One of the controversial pieces he carried was a memorial about Otowi gage, a measuring point that has been a barrier to transfers from Northern New Mexico to the areas south, including Santa Fe and Albuquerque. His memorial stated that it was in the public welfare of the state of New Mexico that the existing policy of not allowing transfers across the gage served as a de-facto protection for areas north of the gage (located north of Pojoaque).

During all of the years of carrying acequia bills, he served not only as a sponsor but also a teacher and mentor on the legislative process. He would say, "Make everyone understand why acequias are important and then you can gain support for your bills."

In the 2019 legislation session, Cisneros, with co-sponsors Senator Pete Campos, Senator Richard Martinez, as well as House Representatives Andrea Romero and Bobby Gonzales, passed legislation creating a $2.5 million fund with recurring funding from the Irrigation Works Construction Fund, a trust fund intended for irrigation and a beneficiary of the Land Grant Permanent Fund. This ensures a steady, recurring source of funding for acequia projects for generations to come.

New Mexico lost in Senator Carlos Cisneros a champion for the rights of rural communities to retain control and democratic decision-making over their water. He understood the unique issues facing rural New Mexico. He used his position for good. For that, we remember Senator Carlos Cisneros with great affection, con mucho cariño. Estimado Senador, gracias por su apoyo y su liderazco. Estamos muy agradecidos.

We are grateful for the life you lived and the fights that you fought on our behalf.

Paula Garcia is the longtime executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association and lives in Mora.This is a shortened version of her piece that appeared in a recent edition of the NMAA newsletter.


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