November 7, 2015
I’ve been visiting ChileFarms for two weeks every January since 2006. The activity on fields around the farm have worked the way agriculture has worked for centuries: plow, plant, irrigate, cultivate, harvest, plow under, start again.
Water has always flowed like clockwork into the canal that passes through ChileFarms property once a week. Farm hands have diverted water from the canal to replenish a small reservoir and into the fields of alfalfa, corn, honeydew and cantaloupe melons, and occasionally potatoes, broccoli, and carrots.
I knew the flow of water into the canal came from the Aconcagua River x miles west of the farm. I knew that the canal ended in Nogales x miles east of the farm. Even a city boy like me could tell that the valley owed its success, nay, its very existence, to the silty water that filled the canals every week of the growing season.
Over the past five years, reliance on the annual snow-melt from the mighty Andes in the east has gotten dodgy. Less snow pack on the mountains was bad enough. A nearly five year drought has spurred farmers like Ricardo Ceriani and Susaan Straus toe enlarge the reservoir on their property, and consider drilling or digging new wells, or finding efficiencies with their irrigation practices.
But what about those canals? During my stay, I peppered Ricardo with questions. Are there other canals? Who controls the water after the snow-melt descends from on high? Who maintains the canals in this valley? Who built them? And why?
Government subsidized irrigation canals were proposed in 1915 when a drought resulted in a scarcity of water in the spring and summer growing seasons. Canals diverting water from the Aconcagua River in the central valley had already been dug years before by wealthy landlords who had time and cheap labor. A few canals had been built by loosely organized groups of farmers but many poor or small farmers could or would not participate.
The outbreak of World War I shut down Chilean nitrate plants. Unemployment ensued. A canal project would solve several problems. A government plan to construct irrigation canals was subsidized by the issue of bonds to finance construction of four canals. The law required farmers to organize irrigation districts if the owners of over 70% of the land subscribed to the irrigation project.
In March 1915 a department was created to supervise contracting for and digging the canals. The first canal completed, the Manco Canal, was 45 miles long and diverted water spring and summer from the Aconcagua River to about 8000 acres of land. The land served today is exponentially larger. Local administration of water distribution is organized by Canal Users Associations. ChileFarms is a member of the Nogales association.
Further research is necessary to determine if the canal passing through ChileFarms from the river to Nogales was part of that first project or had been dug previously.
Policies about water rights were a mess before Augusto Pinochet rose to power in 1970 and didn’t get any better afterward. Wading through this document is a mind boggling exercise. Public vs private ownership of water rights had been debated since the mid 1950s and no clear and enforceable policy had been agreed upon. From the late 1970 to early 1980s, economists and engineers argued about market incentives vs. government regulation. Policies about of agricultural water use, problems about river basin management, economic and environmental concerns were left unresolved or referred to the ill defined Water Code written in 1981.
Currently, powerful landowners in Los Andes, the first area through which snow melt from the Andes flows, control the release of that water into the central valley. The central valley is one of the largest exporters of ‘’off-season” fruit to the United States.
Between the current drought and the increasing practice of planting and irrigating avocado trees on previously unused mountainsides in the valley it is taxing the valley’s water supply to its limit. Something has to change soon. The future of every farm in the valley is in the balance.