Taos' return to the acequias

by Ernest Atencio

Patricia Quintana takes a break from irrigating and leans on her shovel, watching water from the Acequia Madre del Sur del Rio Fernando flow across her newly planted pasture. Two young men from Taos Pueblo patiently guide the water with intuitive skill, using a gentle pull of the shovel here, a small plug of mud over there.

“This is how it used to be,” Quintana reminisces. “When it came to water, Pueblo and non-Pueblo worked very well together. There was a time when we were very interdependent, there was a lot of neighborly trade and barter and sharing of food. The viejitas shared seeds and greeted each other in each other’s language at the grocery store.”

Indo-Hispanos have lived side-by-side with Taos Pueblo Indians since the early 1600s. Following the great Pueblo Revolt of 1680, they’ve mostly gotten along. Water, of course, cares nothing for jurisdictional boundaries or cultural differences. It follows its own course, flowing from headwaters on Pueblo land into Hispano villages across the valley. And so, over the years, Indians and Hispanos were sometimes members of the same acequia, or ditch association.

That’s how it was, anyway, until legal adjudication of water rights came to town. The Abeyta adjudication, as it is officially termed, was filed in 1969 by the state of New Mexico to determine how much water exists in Taos Valley and who owns it. Water adjudications are mind-bogglingly technical, bureaucratic exercises in legally dividing up water rights – a precious resource in this naturally arid agricultural community. In the age of complex regional plumbing, over-appropriated river systems and thirsty, growing populations, adjudications have become necessary to manage the tangled mess of water rights. In the Abeyta case, the state needed to establish a baseline of legal water ownership before it could administer “imported” water from the other side of the continental divide by way of the San Juan-Chama diversion project.

Adversarial by their very nature, adjudications pit traditional water users against one another and often work to the benefit of other interests. “It’s a divide and conquer tactic,” says Quintana, “and the government and private development win.” Just downstream in the Pojoaque Valley, on the northern fringes of Santa Fe, the Aamodt adjudication dragged on for 40 litigious years and in the end left many water users high, dry and bitter (HCN, 10/30/06). The final settlement appears to favor casinos, golf courses and increasing gentrification over agriculture and domestic well owners.

But Taos has taken a different course.

Taos Pueblo has a paramount aboriginal right to the water and is the primary player in the adjudication. But acequias – ancient Hispano irrigation and governance systems – have been around nearly 400 years and today represent about 7,000 parciantes, or water users, in Taos. The Taos Valley Acequia Association was founded in 1987 to represent all 55 local acequias in the adjudication. Its larger goal is the long-term sustainability of traditional agricultural communities.

Palemon Martinez is a founder and president of the acequia association, a taciturn but diligent advocate. He says, “Our objective was to go through the process and maintain traditional water uses. We knew the value of what we wanted to maintain.” Hoping to avoid a lengthy and expensive court fight, the association approached the Pueblo in 1989, after the case had been idle for many years, and offered to negotiate a settlement. “Once you take the legal route, positions are fixed and it’s hard to get off of that,” says Martinez. “A lot of attorneys have made a good living at (adjudications).”

Though all parties preferred negotiation to litigation, the process was neither quick nor easy. “We were at it about 18 years, hundreds or thousands of meetings,” says Martinez, who has spent his entire retirement working on the adjudication. “I don’t wish it on anybody, but I think it’s the best thing we could’ve done.”

The long, slow, messy process of building relationships, negotiating and working out a thousand technical details of water use in the valley, paid off with a 2006 settlement agreement that, remarkably, just about everyone seems satisfied with. The 101-page settlement agreement includes 13 pages for signatures, and all parties – from the Pueblo and the acequia association to the town of Taos and domestic water users associations – were happy (and probably relieved) to sign.

“Tuah-Tah (Taos Pueblo) has been in this valley and using its waters since time immemorial. When those who are now our neighbors came, there was a sharing of water resources and, invariably, disputes arose that have continued to this day,” Taos Pueblo water resource specialist Gil Suazo said in a prepared statement. “With this settlement, we hope to put those disputes to rest and use our agreement to work together to protect this precious resource.”

The Pueblo compares reaching this momentous settlement with the historic 70-year struggle to have its sacred Blue Lake returned by the federal government.

Taos Pueblo water rights coordinator Nelson Córdova said, “The long and hard work of the Pueblo and its neighbors on this agreement has led to a foundation upon which we can all build a relationship for the future.”

Not everything is completely settled, however. Several tribes and other interests on both sides of the continental divide are still fighting over their portion of the San Juan-Chama water. And as always there’s more water on paper than on the landscape. But there are no radical changes in store for local water use in Taos.

The Abeyta settlement plan comes with a price tag of about $120 million – mostly for new wells to offset surface water depletions – but that’s cheap compared to other adjudications in the region, which have gone as high as $800 million. The funding, along with congressional approval of the agreement, has to come from the feds because the government legally owns all the reservation land and water rights, held in trust for the tribe.

New Mexico Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D, and Pete Domenici, R, are working together on legislation which they hope to introduce later this summer, according to Jude McCarten of Bingaman’s office.

Despite everything that's gone into it – 20 years of legal limbo, another 18 years of settlement negotiations, thousands of meetings, countless lawyers and technical experts, shuttling back and forth to D.C. – Martinez says the agreement does little more than formalize the long history of traditional water sharing that was in place before the whole adjudication mess got started. Comparing this experience to the Aamodt adjudication downstream, he says, “I’m glad we were not the guinea pig. Could’ve been, but they were instead of us.”

In the wake of this experience, which has dragged on now for two generations, Martinez thinks all adjudications should go straight to a face-to-face meeting in order to settle, instead of litigate. Quintana thinks it shouldn’t have even gone to adjudication in the first place, saying that if left alone all the water users would have worked it out, as they always have.

“How else do we break down barriers to bring the community back togetheraround land, water, food and animals? Those connections will become a thing of the past.”

When asked how this process has affected intercultural relations, Martinez smiles and says simply, “We’re getting along.”

 

The author spends most of his time driving around his native northern New Mexico working on land conservation projects. © High Country News