GARCIA, Colo. - There are only a couple of customers at Moe's Place this June afternoon, so owner Moises Cordova has the time to sit down and talk. "This time of year, people don't usually come in until after dark, when they're done irrigating," he says.
Less than a mile from New Mexico, the town
of Garcia hangs on to the south end of the wide, windblown San Luis
Valley in south-central Colorado. Moe's Place - -where warm friends
and cold beer meet," says the slogan on Cordova's baseball cap - is
the town's only business, unless you count the backyard tire shop
owned by Moises' brother Dave. Trailers are more common than houses
among the sagebrush, and lawns are nonexistent. Except for the
occasional kid on a bike, the two dusty roads through town are
A few hundred yards to the north, a row
of tall cottonwoods outlines the riverbed of the Rio Costilla, a
small tributary of the Rio Grande. In its upper reaches, high in
the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico, it's a fast-flowing
stream. By the time it runs a gantlet of diversions above Garcia,
it's so small and shallow that you can wade it in a moment.
Nevertheless, this modest stream is the heart of
"We don't have as much
water as we used to," says Cordova, whose family farms a few acres
near town. "But there have always been fights over the water. Even
when I was growing up, my dad would say, "Yeah, I got into it with
so-and-so about the ditches." "
And this is
going to be another contentious year, maybe even more so than
others. Over the past few months, long-standing tensions over water
rights to the Rio Costilla have risen to a very public boiling
point. The small communities along the Rio Costilla - Garcia,
Jaroso, Costilla and Amalia - are again finding themselves at odds.
But this year, there's something new on the
scene. A New Mexico environmental group, Amigos Bravos, has set its
sights on restoring the Rio Grande - not just the river, but also
the small towns that depend on its water. The group is attempting
to change the way local residents deal with the Rio Costilla,
working with a handful of farmers, ranchers and urban refugees as
it tries to mesh environmental goals with local
As Amigos Bravos struggles to put its
values into practice, one of the Southwest's heavy-hitting
environmental groups, Forest Guardians, has joined the fray. Unlike
Amigos Bravos, it's operating in the rarefied world of state and
federal water law, serving notice that it intends to get water back
in the river by challenging the aging compacts that govern the
Colorado River and the Rio Grande. Its attention-getting case has
thrown a spotlight on the Rio Grande watershed, including the Rio
The scuffle in Garcia is testing the
tactics of these two groups, and helping to decide the direction of
the small towns along the Rio Costilla. The outcome may also
foretell the fate of the Rio Grande and its human community. The
Rio Grande is an immense river, stretching from southern Colorado
to the Gulf of Mexico, and it's rarely dealt with as a whole.
Instead, it's usually looked at piece by piece, through isolated
battles over tributaries like the Rio Costilla. But these battles,
drawn out over decades and muddied by local politics, may
eventually jump their banks: They may add up to the future of the
What used to be
Garcia, like many of the largely
Hispanic small towns in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico,
is organized around an acequia, or irrigation ditch, system.
Acequias and the associations that run them have been around longer
than the U.S. government in this area: In Garcia, some of the
ditches were established in the mid-1800s, and there are acequias
in New Mexico that date back to the 1600s.
Mexico is one of the poorest states in the U.S., and rural Taos
County, which includes most of the Rio Costilla's course, has an
unemployment rate of nearly 20 percent - the third highest in the
state. In a region without much cash flow, the acequias provide
irrigation water to parciantes, or small landowners, who raise
alfalfa and subsistence crops. An elected ditch rider, called a
mayordomo, oversees the division of water.
Colorado and New Mexico, the age of each acequia's water right
determines its place in the pecking order, with higher-priority
ditches filling their decrees first. Once the water has been
diverted from the stream into the acequia, it is allocated among
users, usually according to the acres each person
It's a simple, flexible system, one
that's met the needs of New Mexico's small farmers for centuries.
But in the Southwest, water that remains in the river is considered
wasted water - by both acequia associations and modern water
engineers. Colorado now allows permit holders to keep river water
flowing for the benefit of wildlife, and the New Mexico state
engineer recently opened the door to the possibility of instream
flow permits. Most river water, however, is still dedicated to
agriculture and other human
"It really is true that
the people who manage water here manage it as a commodity to get
from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible, with no
regard for what used to be a river," says Ernie Atencio, projects
director for Amigos Bravos. "It turns into a network of canals and
lateral ditches replacing what the river used to do."
Rio Costilla flows through two states - New
Mexico and Colorado. As a result, the small creek and its
215-square mile watershed are governed by an interstate compact
that was approved by local water users, two state legislatures, and
the U.S. Congress in the midst of World War II. The Rio Costilla
and the Pecos River in Texas are the only Rio Grande tributaries
with their own interstate compact commissions, each including the
state engineers and their advisers.
compact's few pages determine how much water each state gets from
the 40 mile-long creek, which begins in New Mexico, curves
northward through Colorado, and dips south into New Mexico again.
Rio Costilla's confluence with the Rio Grande is 15 miles
downstream of Garcia. But in four years out of five, Rio Costilla
has been drained by the time it reaches the Rio Grande. Costilla,
Spanish for rib, describes the arc of the river's
From the start, the compact has been a
source of controversy. In 1944, immediately after its signing, the
New Mexico state engineer said his former counterpart in Colorado
"seemed to be a little perturbed" about the document. "He seemed to
think it was too complicated to administer effectively," wrote the
New Mexico engineer in a letter to a colleague.
Many citizens of Garcia call that an understatement. They've
complained to the commission for years that the neighboring towns
of Jaroso, Colo., and Costilla, N.M., with a combined population of
about 300, were getting an unfairly large share of the water. By
the time the river reaches the fewer than 100 people in Garcia,
they said, the trickle that remains isn't enough to farm
"Filemon, my uncle, has
probably been in the record (of commission meetings) longer than
anyone," says Cordova. "He never gave up. He was a constant pain in
the butt. The people here have been bitching and moaning for so
many years, they can't be doing it just for practice."
Now, those who have been complaining for
decades have new allies, recent arrivals who'd like to see more
water stay in the river. Over the past 20 years, a few people have
moved into the area, mostly Anglos escaping from coastal cities.
Some bought property near the river in Costilla or Garcia,
expecting to enjoy a backyard view of a lush riparian area.
Instead, they were shocked to see the flow drop to nothing during
the hot, dry late summer.
Donna Crawford, who
moved here from California with her sister Joanna to start a bed
and breakfast, lives beside the river near Garcia. There was never
much water in the river, she says, and during the unusually dry
summer of 1996, "the water just stopped coming." Their bed and
breakfast is now for
"Who wants to live by a
dead river?" asks Helen Doroshow, a philanthropist and real estate
developer who has lived in Costilla since the early 1980s. "I'm not
going to sit here and watch my properties go down." Her properties,
a few houses and another bed and breakfast in Costilla, are also
now for sale.
These relative newcomers, along
with some longtime Garcia residents, wanted more than a chance to
complain to an unresponsive commission. In late 1996, the Crawfords
and Doroshow enlisted the help of the Taos-based river conservation
group, Amigos Bravos, with Doroshow's Levinson Foundation offering
to fund some of the group's early research.
Finding common ground
invitation landed in the lap of Atencio, who had just joined Amigos
Bravos as its projects director. Amigos Bravos' concerns are not
solely ecological: Its mission statement says "environmental
justice and social justice go hand in hand," and its long-term goal
is to restore the Rio Grande to drinkability. Because the group
tries to find common ground with local water users, Atencio started
looking for people to talk to.
joined forces with a 15-member local group, now called Reviva el
Rio Costilla (Revive the Rio Costilla), and began to puzzle through
the area's complex water-rights history. The coalition also set
some goals: It especially wanted to see water flowing through
Garcia, for the benefit of both the acequias and the upstream
"From our first
meeting, it seemed like everyone had the same concerns," says
Atencio, who was born in northern New Mexico and returned to the
area after many years' absence (including a 1993 HCN internship) to
work for Amigos Bravos. "We were looking at ecological issues, the
Crawfords and Helen Doroshow were worried about aesthetic issues,
and the acequias wanted water, but ultimately it all came down to
keeping water in the river."
were initially suspicious. "We asked them, "Hey, what's in it for
you?" "''''recalls Moises Cordova about Amigos Bravos. "But most of
them seem pretty sincere about what they do. They're a plus, most
definitely a plus."
Bravos has been in the forefront of this," says Lonnie Roybal, a
Costilla farmer and the leader of the local citizens' group.
"They've got more experience, and they've got the time, no?"
Although Amigos Bravos tries to find a local
consensus, it's not averse to using legal tools to achieve the
communities' goals. The group obtained the help of an attorney,
Peter White, a water-rights expert who spent 27 years working for
the New Mexico state engineer's office. He examined the 1944
Costilla Creek Compact, and then wrote a report that Amigos Bravos
distributed to Costilla Creek water users and the state
When the compact was negotiated,
White says, the engineers assumed that each user would be limited
to two acre-feet of water for each acre farmed. "The documentation
of the negotiations clearly supports it," says
On the ground, however, water users
aren't limited to two acre-feet per acre. In Colorado and New
Mexico, irrigators measure out their water by rate, in cubic feet
per second. That means, White estimates, that some higher-priority
ditches may use closer to four acre-feet per acre each year. At the
same time, the lower-priority acequias in Garcia get less than half
that amount in most years.
focus is whether or not the compact commissioners are violating the
compact," says White. "It's not an ironclad case, but I think the
commission's just been kind of sloppy in carefully administering
the water so it's fairly distributed."
Costilla Creek Compact Commission rejected White's arguments.
"There's nothing in the compact which forces that kind of
restriction," says Steve Vandiver of the Colorado Department of
Water Resources in Alamosa, Colo. "In Colorado, at least, you're
entitled to the flow rate of your decree as long as you use it
The response of the state
engineers, Hal Simpson of Colorado and Tom Turney of New Mexico,
was even more succinct: "The Compact Commissioners do not see a
need at this time to change such practices," they said in a
page-and-a-half letter to Atencio.
"Shooting in the
While Peter White pored over the compact,
Amigos Bravos tried to figure out what was happening in the
acequias. The group believed that water was being overdiverted
within the system through poor oversight and unmetered ditches. But
when they set out to find who was getting more than their share of
the water, they found themselves in the middle of a water
"Here I am, this novice
water-issues activist," says Atencio, "and Brian (Shields, the
group's executive director) says "Here, why don't you take this
project on." Right at the start, we went down there and, I confess,
just started shooting in the dark. At the time, we didn't really
know where to start."
Those shots roused
people. The water that Amigos Bravos wants to see running through
Garcia has to come from somewhere, and those who might lose water
through the group's efforts haven't stood by quietly. Several local
water users say they were, and still are, the targets of unfair
accusations from the group and its supporters.
The first is Dean Swift, a 23-year resident of Jaroso, Colo., who
owns a wildflower seed distribution company. He's the sole member
of the Eastdale Ditch Company, which oversees the Eastdale
Reservoir west of town. Each year, before the irrigation season
begins, Swift draws 1,000 acre-feet of water from the main ditch
feeding the town of Jaroso - the amount allotted to the reservoir
by the Costilla Creek Compact - for his 700-acre operation. By May
15, the other parciantes on the canal, the members of the Jaroso
Mutual Ditch Company, can open their headgates and begin
Swift got some negative press last
spring, when visiting reporters saw water flowing into the
reservoir and thought he had access to the canal all summer long.
"They were just dead wrong," he says.
challenges Amigos Bravos' claim that its conservation work is
community-based. "I think Amigos Bravos jumped into some politics
of envy - it's such a small and unrepresentative group that they
work with. The old conspiracy theory - their poor grandfathers
getting swindled out of their rights - is very attractive, but I
wish (Amigos Bravos) had looked into it before they got involved,"
he says. "They've antagonized almost everyone, and they could have
(come in) in a nonconfrontational way. They've caused distrust
among neighbors and friends, and that's very irresponsible."
Amigos Bravos and Reviva El Rio Costilla still
believe that someone is overdiverting water, but their suspicions
have now shifted to the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock
Association. The organization was formed in 1942 and now numbers
about 180 members, all of whom are blood relatives of the
The livestock association owns 80,000
acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Amalia, N.M., where it
grazes cattle and operates a recreational area for fishing and
hunting. The association also manages the water in the 15,000
acre-foot Costilla Reservoir, which sits on mountain land owned by
media mogul Ted Turner. Under Western water law, one person can
control a reservoir or ditch that is on someone else's
Livestock association members use water
from the Amalia ditches and Costilla's Cerro Canal, and the
coalition thinks that association members are taking advantage of
their management of the reservoir by using more than their share of
"It definitely started
looking like they'd gained a lot of power in the community just
through their control of water," says Atencio.
Vandiver does say that the distribution of the water isn't closely
monitored. "There's some unanswered questions about the Amalia
ditches," he says. "The watermaster can't be everywhere at once,
and I think he relies upon what (livestock association) members
tell him is being diverted up there."
Association president David Arguello denies that the association is
overdiverting water. Amigos Bravos, he says, is "using some of the
locals to say they want water back in the acequias, but (those
locals) have minimal water rights. Naturally, some of that water's
going to go down over the summer, but people don't want to face
"I think the water's
being administered according to the permit," Arguello adds, "and I
don't see how it can be changed unless we amend the compact.
They're threatening the livelihood of the farmers here, and those
farmers are going to get angry. I'd hate to be the one to try and
take the water away from them."
These tensions went public at the
annual Costilla Creek Compact Commission meeting - held, like
almost every other public meeting in the area, at Moe's Place - in
early May. "It was a classic scene," says Atencio. "The citizens'
group was on one side, and (livestock association) and Jaroso
Mutual Ditch Association members were on the other. There were a
lot of accusations thrown at us about being "outsiders."
The livestock association also challenged
Amigos Bravos' assertion that the water was not being distributed
according to the compact. "After that compact meeting, they should
have gotten their heads together and understood things," says Frank
Ortiz, vice-president of the association.
new twist was added to the story that night. Forest Guardians, an
environmental group based in Santa Fe, N.M., announced its
intention to file a lawsuit. Lawsuits aren't unusual for this
group, which fights most of its battles in the courtroom, but this
one is particularly ambitious, designed to grab the attention of
Forest Guardians is
challenging the long-standing interstate stream compacts on some of
the Southwest's great rivers: the Rio Grande, the Colorado, and the
Pecos, arguing that the implementation of the compacts doesn't
comply with national environmental laws, like the National
Environmental Policy Act. And because Rio Costilla is a tributary
of the Rio Grande, the group has thrown the relatively small-time
Costilla Creek Compact into the suit.
Guardians isn't just pushing for a clarification of the Costilla
Creek compact. If successful - and many say it's a long shot - its
suit would fundamentally change all the compacts, requiring the
engineers to consider endangered species and their habitats as they
divvy up the waters of the Rio Grande and the
"The Rio Costilla is
a mess," says Forest Guardians' executive director John Talberth.
"The situation there is having devastating consequences on the
riparian area. It's a good test to see if we can get these compacts
Although Talberth says the lawsuit is
"one of our priorities," it's getting more notice than the group
expected. A meeting of activists from around the region was
well-attended, and a positive opinion piece from the Los Angeles
Times has been reprinted in Southwestern newspapers. "We hit a raw
nerve," says Talberth. Federal river managers were to have met with
Forest Guardians Oct. 5 to discuss the case.
Amigos Bravos had hoped to build a consensus along the Rio Costilla
through its local organizing, says Atencio. "That would be the
ideal situation, but I'm starting to think that consensus isn't
possible up there right now," he says.
Garcia citizens' group represents a broad range of interests, he
says, but so far they haven't been able to bring the bigger water
users to the table. While Reviva el Rio Costilla has discussed a
lawsuit of its own, based on Peter White's research, it has not yet
taken any action. Atencio says it's possible that the
national-level pressure from Forest Guardians' lawsuit will help
Amigos Bravos' work at the local level.
the two strategies seem to be compatible, or at least not
conflicting. While Forest Guardians takes on "everybody and their
grandmother," as Lonnie Roybal describes it, Amigos Bravos tries to
make gradual progress outside the courtroom. Through its efforts,
the New Mexico State Legislature has allocated $100,000 to install
and improve water meters on the New Mexico side of the river, which
Amigos Bravos hopes will resolve the question of upstream
overdiversion. The commission has also agreed to produce an
operations manual for the watermasters on both sides of the state
Steve Vandiver from the Colorado Division
of Water Resources says the recent changes have been positive.
"There's a heightened awareness in the community about the
compact," he says. "People have made an effort to educate
themselves, and they're more aware of what's going on and how it
affects them." A report on flow levels in each of the ditches is
now posted at the Conoco station between Garcia and Costilla, and
Moises Cordova regularly checks the gauge at the Colorado state
line to see if Garcia is getting its allotted flow out of New
Mexico. If the flow isn't what it should be, he calls up Vandiver
to report the problem.
one's asked these questions for 50 years, so these are big
accomplishments, just in terms of shaking things loose," says
Atencio. But, he adds, "it's been really exhausting and hard for
us. We've scratched at a 50-year-old wound, and there's a lot of
anger beneath it."
By wading into this untidy
controversy, Amigos Bravos is causing itself and the local
communities some headaches, and it touched off a firestorm with
premature accusations. The group has also found that, for now,
local efforts alone can't bring about all the changes it's looking
for. But by altering the terms of a decades-long debate along the
Rio Costilla - by bringing attention to complaints that have been
repeated for years - it may also be setting a precedent for
positive environmental and social change along the Rio
"I think people are
expecting that this will be groundbreaking in the way it combines
community and environmental concerns," says Atencio. "Costilla is a
small example of much larger issues downstream."
Not the Garden of
In the end, the community may find it is
fighting over a pie that's not big enough for everyone, at least
not without major changes in land use. Alfalfa, a notoriously
thirsty crop, is a common choice here. Flood irrigation is a
"They probably need
more water than we think they're limited to by the compact," admits
Atencio. "Two acre-feet are allocated, but they might need closer
to three to have a healthy crop."
"If you only had a little
more of a drainage basin, it would be a Garden of Eden, as far as
I'm concerned," says Vandiver. "But there's just not enough water
"I'd like to see
water running down the river," says Eric Galvez, a member of both
the livestock association and the Jaroso Mutual Ditch Co. "I'd like
to see my friends and neighbors in Garcia have water. But if it
isn't there, it isn't there."
Some people are
working on solutions. Lonnie Roybal is part of the 10-member Sangre
de Cristo Growers' Cooperative, which grows organic wheat - a crop
requiring far less water than alfalfa - for markets in Santa Fe and
Taos. Now in its third year, the cooperative plans to start a
milling operation and bakery here in town. And the livestock
association has long since switched most of its efforts over to
"hook-and-bullet" tourism, leading elk and deer hunting expeditions
in Rio Costilla Park.
But the members of the
coalition believe that the water, scarce or not, could still be
distributed more equitably. Moises Cordova knows their efforts
won't cure Garcia's problems. "Most people don't have enough water,
or even enough acreage, to make a living farming," he says.
He pauses, and adds, "But it does keep the
traditions alive, it keeps hope alive, and it develops stronger
family ties. Garcia could be green again. That's what this effort
could do - make it green here. It could make it livable."
Michelle Nijhuis is staff
reporter for High Country News.