A river becomes a raw nerve

Along the Rio Costilla, communities have been fighting over water for more than a century. The latest round may be the most heated.

  • Rio Costilla canals and ditches

    Diane Sylvain
  • Irrigation ditch spreads water over fields in the San Luis Valley

    Peter White photo
  • Irrigation water flows through a headgate near Costilla

    Peter White photo
  • Ernie Atencio, Amigos Bravos

    Julia Bergen
  • A flow meter on the Rio Costilla

    Peter White photo
  • David Arguello and Frank Ortiz

    Michelle Nijhuis photo
  • Moises Cordova, Garcia businessman

    Michelle Nijhuis photo
  • Lonnie Roybal, Costilla farmer

    Michelle Nijhuis photo
  • Dean Swift, Eastdale Ditch Company

    Michelle Nijhuis
  • Users at the end of the ditch are sometimes left with a trickle

    Peter White photo

Note: five sidebar articles accompanying this feature story are listed at the end of this article.

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 quiet.

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 Garcia.

"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 needs.

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 Costilla.

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 Rio Grande.

What used to be a river

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.

New 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.

In 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 farms.

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 uses.

"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.

The 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 course.

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 with.

"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 sale.

"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

Their 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.

Amigos Bravos 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 fisheries.

"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."

Longtime locals 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."

"Amigos 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 engineers.

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 White.

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.

"My 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."

The 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 beneficially."

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 dark'

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 war.

"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 irrigating.

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.

Swift 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 founders.

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 land.

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 water.

"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 reality.

"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."

Getting their heads together

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.

And a 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 national policymakers.

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.

Forest 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 Colorado.

"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 amended."

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.

The 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.

So far, 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 line.

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.

"No 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 Grande.

"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 Eden

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 habit.

"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 up there."

"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.


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