New Mexico tribe fighting water diversions from mountaintop
PICURIS PUEBLO, N.M. (AP) — Picuris Pueblo Gov. Craig Quanchello says there are people whose wells are drying up.
The pueblo’s buffalo herd, part of which is harvested each year and distributed to tribal members, has dwindled from what once was 160 to just 28 at last count.
Some years, he says, farmers in and around the pueblo, south of Taos in New Mexico’s northern mountains, can’t get more than a couple of cuts of hay because there’s not enough water to irrigate their fields.
“We end up buying it from people on the other side,” Quanchello said, meaning the other side of a Sangre de Cristo Mountains ridgeline that divides the Rio Grande and Rio Canadian watersheds.
And that’s both ironic and an affront to the pueblo, the governor said, considering the people on the other side of the divide are using water that, if nature had been left to itself, would flow to the Rio Pueblo, which runs right through the pueblo on its way to the Rio Grande.
That’s because, beginning more than 150 years ago, farmers in the Mora Valley began diverting water near the top of Jicarita Peak, southwest of Picuris, to acequias that flow toward their fields. There are three diversions on the mountain - all originally constructed in the 1800s - that move water from the Picuris side of the mountain in the direction of rural mountain communities on the eastern side of the ridge, including Chacon, Holman and Mora. By some estimates, about 30% of the water that would normally flow to the Rio Pueblo ends up on the other side of the mountain.
“Every year, it gets worse and worse,” Quanchello said on a rainy day in early October before embarking on a trip up the mountain.
More sandbags show up each year, he said, and it’s apparent that Mora Valley irrigators have built up berms and constructed presas to channel water from creeks and small basins known as cirques to the acequias.
As a result, he said, Alamitos Creek, which once was no wider than he could stretch his arms, is now as wide as a football field.
“What gives them the authority to change the direction of flow?” said the governor, adding there’s no documents that show the pueblo ever gave anyone permission to move the water.
He stopped short of saying that the pueblo would take legal action against the irrigators and the state or federal agencies responsible for regulating water rights. But he wouldn’t rule it out.
“We’re going to do everything in our power, without anyone getting hurt,” he said.
Quanchello said he’s asked the U.S. Forest Service for copies of permits that allow for the diversions, which are located in the Carson National Forest.
“We’re waiting to see what they have,” he said. “We know it wasn’t done right. We’re asking them to show us they’re following their own regulations.”
The Albuquerque Journal efforts, via requests to the Carson National Forest’s spokeswoman, to speak with a USFS official familiar with the matter were not successful.
But it appears the Forest Service has some jurisdiction in the matter as federal funding has been used to create and shore up the water system’s infrastructure.
Barbara Bradshaw is commissioner of the Acequia de Canoncito on the Mora side of the mountain. She says the Office of the State Engineer gives irrigators in that area the right to divert water.
“Our understanding is that we have valid water rights under state water law. If that were not the case, the State Engineer would have stopped us from irrigating a long time ago,” she responded in an email. “We have valid water rights and we agree the Pueblo has valid water rights. So that’s not the question. The question is how different valid water rights use water from the same stream. We hope to come to an understanding with the Pueblo about what that looks like.”
John Romero, director of the Water Rights and Water Resources Allocation Program at the Office of the State Engineer, agrees. He said that because irrigators in the Mora Valley have been using water from Jicarita Peak since the 19th century, they have pre-1907 water rights under New Mexico state law. It wasn’t until after that date that irrigators were required to get a permit from the OSE to obtain a surface water right.
“This was done prior to statehood, prior to their being a state engineer, prior to there being a territorial engineer,” he said of the diversions. “If it were being done today, it would have to be permitted through our office.”
The water in that area has never been adjudicated, and Romero said doing so would clear up a lot of questions. “That (adjudication) is always a good thing because it shows ownership, amounts and priority dates. It makes for certainty,” he said.
But Gov. Quanchello said adjudication is not an option. He said that pueblo leadership generations ago decreed that they would not go through an administrative adjudication process, which could divide up what the pueblo considers its water.
Asked what can be done to resolve the situation, Romero said more data is needed to determine “where the water is going and where it’s originating from.”
He said the United States Geological Survey has meters that measure the amount of water running through rivers and tributaries on some parts of Jicarita Peak. The OSE has proposed adding more meters, which he said cost around $35,000 apiece, but the contract with the company that installed the meters has expired and was renewed only earlier this month.
“So we’re going to have to wait until next summer to get the meters in place so we can get a better understanding of the situation,” he said.
Romero said the other thing that would help is for the parties to communicate with each other.
“They need to be talking about maintenance, sharing the key (to diversion gates), and how they allocate the water during a dry spell. There’s not a good communication pipeline right now,” he said.
Bradshaw and Romero are on the same page in that regard. She said there hasn’t been discussions between the Mora irrigators and the pueblo since 2014.
“We should follow through where we left off in 2014 and resume our meetings,” she said. “We need an open line of communication so that we can come to an understanding about how the water flows. We also need studies and data that we can all trust so that we can make good decisions.”
Antonio Medina serves as commissioner of Acequia de Encinal, another acequia on the Mora side of the mountain. He says representatives of area acequias met with then-pueblo Gov. Richard Mermejo three times in 2014. “The dialogue was respectful. We are open to future meetings,” he said.
Asked what’s the best solution, Medina said, “We are advocating for a process that is fair, that will hopefully lead us to a respectful resolution. We share some of the same values that water is life and that we are stewards of the water. Our community well-being and our future depend on water. We recognize and respect that other communities depend on a shared source of water and we want to engage in respectful dialogue about how we can work together.”
Gov. Quanchello, who is in his third consecutive one-year term as governor, says talk so far has gotten the pueblo nowhere.
“The people on the Mora side have all the political power,” he said. “The effort (to resolve the situation) gets pushed so far and then someone from Mora or Santa Fe bogs it down.”
The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has been in on the discussions, has been of little help, he said.
“They say all the right words, but their actions speak otherwise,” he said.
The BIA provided a statement to the Journal that said its Southwest Regional Office in Albuquerque “has met with the Pueblo, heard its concerns, and will continue to work with them in any determination regarding this matter, although, as is known, water claims litigation are very lengthy.”
Jimmy Sanchez is the mayordomo for the Acequia de la Sierra de Holman and a fifth-generation farmer in the Mora Valley. The acequia he oversees was built around 1880 when the parish priest in Mora led about 20 families on a three-year endeavor to construct a water channeling system to redirect water on Jicarita Peak to their fields.
“This is the way it’s been ran all these years. We shared the water and we continue to share the water,” he said.
Sanchez says there’s enough water for everyone on both sides of the divide.
“On our acequia, there’s no need to bother us because even in the springtime, there’s so much water. We can’t have it all. We have just enough to do the fields down here, that’s it,” he said.
Asked who regulates the diversions and decides how much water goes over to the east side of the mountain, Sanchez said, “I do. I control the gate.”
The diversions don’t just impact the pueblo, which has only about 300 tribal members. Farmers on the Picuris side of the divide also feel the effects.
“When we have drought, that’s when we’re really affected,” said Joseph Luján, who farms near Picuris. “To me, it’s just wrong. They are taking it all without regard to anyone down here.”
Clarence Cordova is mayordomo of the Acequia Placitas on the Picuris side of the mountain. With the loosening of federal laws, he’s now trying to make a go of growing hemp. But he can’t without the water he needs.
“I don’t understand why, when somebody steals from you, you have to ask for half of it back,” he said.
Picuris Pueblo, which saw its budding effort at growing medical marijuana uprooted by federal agents in 2017, also sees an opportunity in growing hemp.
Gov. Quanchello say that lacking opportunities for economic development - he boasts that the pueblo has the world’s smallest casino, located inside the Picuris Smoke Shop - hemp further monetizes acreage on their side of the mountain, raising the stakes.
And while this water rights dispute involves Picuris Pueblo, Quanchello says the state and other pueblos should have an interest because the Mora irrigators are taking water that otherwise would flow to the Rio Grande.
The OSE’s Romero acknowledged that, saying, “The river is a tributary to the Rio Grande and the water goes down to Texas, so, yeah, there could be a relationship there.” But he noted that the diversions have been in place since long before the interstate Rio Grande Compact was signed in 1939.
Richard Hughes of Rothstein Donatelli law firm in Santa Fe, who has written a book on pueblo water rights, represents Picuris Pueblo as an attorney. He says this case is pretty simple.
“The whole issue of water rights of pueblos in New Mexico is highly complicated and completely undecided by law. But here we have a plain vanilla conflict of senior versus junior water rights,” he said. “There’s really no doubt that Picuris has prior rights to the waters of the Rio Pueblo.”
Hughes says the Mora valley irrigators aren’t doing anything unlawful in a criminal sense. But a case can be made that, by diverting water, they are infringing on the pueblo’s water rights, taking somewhere between one-third and one-half of the natural flow.
What’s more, over the years, a lot more folks have moved into the area on both sides of the divide. “So there are a lot of people using that water, which makes the existence of a diversion from that basin to a totally different basin a more serious problem,” Hughes said.
He said that perhaps some “arrangement” could be made between the pueblo and Mora valley irrigators, and that the pueblo would like to avoid a lawsuit, as lawsuits can be expensive, complicated and lengthy.
But, “sometimes it takes filing a lawsuit to get people to talk to each other,” he said.
Meanwhile, according to Hughes, “the urgency seems to be growing to take some kind of action that would begin to change the situation.”