A home-grown Water War

  • The Northern Rio Grande

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Bruce Bolander stands by chairlift at Sipapu ski area

    Bruce Selcraig photo
  • HUMMING: The town of Dixon

    Michael P. Berman photo

Note: two sidebar articles accompany this feature story: "Mayordoma works hard to go unnoticed" and "Acequia culture feels under the gun."

DIXON, N.M. - As Western water wars go, the five-year-long dispute between a "50s-style family ski resort in northern New Mexico and its rural downstream neighbors appears to lack the naked greed and slimy politics we've come to expect.

There are no rapacious multinationals or Super Wal-Marts to crucify, no lawmakers caught with snow on their hands. Yet this little water melee is instructive because the story of how New Mexico's scarce water moves from small farms, ranches and pueblocitos to mega-malls and gated communities is rarely a Chinatown thriller. More often it's about places like Dixon and families like the Bolanders.

In 1950, Lloyd and Olive Bolander bought an adobe homestead in this high mountain valley some 22 miles south of Taos on the Rio Pueblo, a tributary of the Rio Embudo, which flows into the Rio Grande. Lloyd had grown up around here; Olive was a Texas girl from Lubbock. Two years later, they bought a 100-foot-long portable rope tow, cleared a few downhill runs through some land adjoining the Carson National Forest and launched their dream: the Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort.

"Skiing was new, and not a lot of people were doing it," recalls Lloyd, now 72. "We charged 75 cents for lifts, lessons and rental skis. Some of the kids couldn't afford that then."

Sipapu (that's see-pah-poo, a Tewa Indian word meaning "spirit place') grew as the Bolanders could afford it - first some rental skis with bear trap bindings, then by 1960, another lift, a few rock and adobe cabins and a pine-log lodge with a country store that still sells corny postcards and beef jerky. Today, Sipapu has 19 trails and lodging for 250 people, yet it remains the smallest (185 acres; 35 skiable) and oldest of northern New Mexico's ski resorts, a true mom-and-pop retreat that attracts more church groups and family reunions than Porsches.

The good years have mostly paid for the bad ones, says co-owner Bruce Bolander, the tall, athletic, 47-year-old son who manages the resort. But to stay afloat in a volatile industry, the Bolanders insist they must expand. In 1994, they sought permission from the U.S. Forest Service, from which they lease land, to expand by nearly 800 acres, adding almost 200 acres of skiable terrain, a 2,700-square-foot restaurant/ski patrol office, more parking and a 5,000-gallon wastewater treatment plant.

The Bolanders' big hurdle was finding more water - enough to double the resort's snow-making capacity. (Although Sipapu sits at 8,200 feet, it averages only about 110 inches of natural snow a year, about half that of the Santa Fe, Angel Fire or Red River ski areas.)

To get the water, which would come from the Rio Pueblo as it rushes past the Sipapu lodge, the Bolanders proposed transferring some of their agricultural water rights to commercial use. Then came the trap door.

At the urging of local opponents to Sipapu's expansion, the state engineer's office, which administers water rights in New Mexico, searched its files for the water permits the Bolanders said they had. None were found. Worse news came when an aerial photo expert studied a black-and-white shot taken above Sipapu in 1965.

"I see a creek, the road, the pond," testified geology professor Stanley Morain. "I see cabins. I see the ski lodge ..." But he saw no signs of irrigation, and saw none in photos taken in subsequent years. If true, it would mean the Bolanders abandoned what water rights they had. The Bolanders' expert disagreed and said there was evidence of irrigation, but the state sided with the opponents, leaving the Bolanders facing a grim future.

"If we have no water," says Bruce Bolander, who has kept Sipapu open by getting emergency permits the last four years, "we have no resort." And no one seems to want that.

Farmers on the defensive

Sipapu is unpretentious, convenient and cheap. All-day lift tickets are $29, and it hosts nearly 2,000 area students each year in its school program. The Forest Service estimates, albeit without much evidence, that Sipapu generates $2 million annually for the local economy. During peak ski season, Bolander says, about 70 people work full- or part-time. The surrounding area, including Picuris Pueblo, has been economically depressed for many years and certainly could use more jobs.

So who would oppose that? Sipapu's allies point downstream toward Dixon, a little art-and-farm village 18 miles west.

Just two miles from the Rio Grande, Dixon's modest adobe farm houses glow orange and rust red in the sun, as they watch over small plots of peas, garlic, apples and fancy flowers. There's a deceptive Mayberry feel here, but Dixon is humming intellectually, stirred by young norteûo activists, noted author and garlic farmer Stanley Crawford, and some fourth- and fifth-generation Hispanic farmers - virtually all of whom, despite their differences, are bound by their need and respect for water.

Throughout Dixon and some outlying villages, where perhaps 1,500 residents live, run nine man-made irrigation ditches, or acequias - all diverted from the Rio Pueblo's offspring, the Rio Embudo. These waterways not only bind people historically to the Spanish and Native Americans who dug them over 250 years ago, but which also tie them spiritually and commercially to the land. (Irrigated land in Dixon can sell for $40,000 an acre.)

You can romanticize such things - after all, they are only small, dirt ditches about two feet deep and a yard wide - but there is a sense of communal stewardship and sacrifice in Dixon that you won't find just anywhere in America anymore.

"Up to a certain threshold, people fight a little about their water," says Crawford, whose 1988 book Mayordomo chronicled his life as the ditch boss of Dixon's Acequia del Bosque (HCN, 10/12/98). "But in 1995, when it was clear we had a serious (drought) problem, people who hardly spoke to each other worked together. It was all very wonderful to see."

The mayordoma of Dixon's Acequia del Llano, transplanted California artist Marie Coburn, is paid about $100 a week by her 98 members, or parciantes, to clean the ditch, allocate the water and police its use (see sidebar). Yes, there are occasional waterhogs, but overall, she says: "It's inspiring to me that people are sharing a resource that is so valuable. It's amazing that this ancient cooperative system is still going on."

But acequias and their communal culture are under siege in northern New Mexico by cities, developers and corporations, usually farther south, which can afford to offer water-rights holders from $5,000 to $50,000 for an acre-foot of water. In some cases, water brokers working for developers will come to small communities and seek out acequia members who are in financial trouble. "They'll ask around and find the most vulnerable people," then offer to buy their water rights, says Paula Garcia, president of the New Mexico Acequia Association.

In Espaûola, Garcia says, an acequia member sold water rights to a Laundromat. In Las Vegas, northeast of Santa Fe, acequia proponents have spent years in court fighting a proposed water-rights transfer by the city. Other stories tell of developers, who are required by law to advertise water-rights transfers in general circulation newspapers, trying to bury their legal notices in small weekly newspapers, presumably to avoid scrutiny.

The transfer of acequia water rights to commercial users not only unravels the structure of rural, land-based communities, says Stanley Crawford, but also violates the communal structure of acequias. "When that landowner is allowed to sell off his water right, he is also selling off something that does not properly belong to him," Crawford wrote in a letter to the state engineer. "It is as if I am given the right to sell my "share" of the local commons in the form of the railing of the highway bridge or a shelf of books in the library of the public school."

Few issues so graphically portray the dilemma facing many small communities and the largely poor Hispanic families that now find themselves sitting on small fortunes of water. "These families are facing enormous economic pressures that are alien to them and almost irresistible," says Nicasio Romero, former president of the New Mexico Acequia Association. Every day, Romero says, Hispanic families who have worked the acequias for generations are enticed to sell off their water and land. "It's a real dilemma. Selling off their water offers the possibility of sending their kids to college, to be full Americans. It's tearing families apart."

In Dixon and along the Embudo Valley, the acequias have revitalized a small-farm culture, especially a burgeoning organic produce trade, that allows many people to live a rural life without commuting to Santa Fe or Albuquerque. For these folks, living in the shadow of Indian casinos and atomic labs, the ditches are not mere historical curiosities, like the abandoned acequias in California and Texas, but umbilical cords.

So, when the Bolanders sought to nearly double the water they take out of the Rio Pueblo, which ultimately feeds Dixon's acequias, much of the Embudo Valley and the Picuris Pueblo protested. Picuris Governor Red Eagle Rael, who swam and bathed in the Rio Pueblo as a child, says that while the expansion itself may not be immediately harmful, it would likely spawn more condos, fast-food joints and traffic that could ruin the tranquility of the community.

"We're not opposed to the ski resort," says Rael, "but we've told him (Bruce Bolander) that he needs to negotiate with us first."

"If Sipapu expands, we will see the familiar cycle of more skiers, more shops, more second homes, and more traffic, while the locals will mostly get seasonal, low-wage, dead-end jobs," says New Mexico Environmental Law attorney Doug Wolf, who has represented several acequias that are fighting to hold onto water rights. "This will all be at the expense of the farming economy which is showing a real life with the increased demand for organic produce."

"I'm absolutely against the expansion," says Stanley Crawford. "This might not be the best choice of words, but we know that in a sense a war is going on. But we don't know which is the crucial battle, so we treat each one as though it might win or lose the war."

Things get personal

Bruce Bolander is plowing through his hash browns on a typical summer Sunday morning, while outside at Sipapu, golfers hurl Frisbees through the pines, and the Maesta family reunion gathers for its last hugs.

"I can remember when I was a kid," Bolander says, "having to stand on a milk crate to be able to flip hamburgers. I've literally done everything here - taken out the trash, done the accounting (his sister handles that now), built cabins, fixed the plumbing in the middle of the night ..."

He stops suddenly, maybe remembering what's at stake this fall, when the Bolanders face another hearing in the second round of their five-year quest to transfer water rights at Sipapu. They lost the first round.

"I never conceived that anything like this could happen," Bolander says. "I knew the process would take a while, but I just thought we'd answer everyone's concerns and get on with it."

While the force behind the ski area opposition came from the pueblo and downstream acequias, the legal know-how was provided by a feisty environmental group with the unwieldy name of the Rio Pueblo/Rio Embudo Watershed Protection Coalition.

The coalition is largely driven by Mark Schiller and Kay Matthews, a married couple who live in a small 20-family village west of Sipapu and publish a monthly grant-supported newsletter called La Jicarita, which covers water issues throughout northern New Mexico (HCN, 5/11/98).

Well-versed in the minutiae of water policy, Schiller and Matthews can talk "instream flow" and "return flow credits' with Santa Fe's finest agua attorneys. Locals credit Schiller with exposing the Forest Service's initial environmental impact statement on Sipapu as a woefully superficial document. "The EIS was one of the poorest I've ever seen," says Schiller. "It's as though it was written with the idea that no one would ever look at it."

Schiller and Matthews are wary and weary of the Sipapu issue. When I first contact them, they hesitate to be interviewed, then, after consenting, ask not be photographed.

"We've been threatened by some of the people who work up there (at Sipapu)," Schiller says, "and I just don't know how much more we should say." The enmity between them and Bruce Bolander is almost palpable. Bolander says Schiller is a "transplant" (they moved here in 1992 from Placitas, near Albuquerque) who incites otherwise reasonable people to become intractable. Schiller and Matthews, who ironically were active in Sipapu's school ski programs, characterize Bolander as a powerful local Republican and "wise-use" advocate who sponsors motorcycle rallies on his leased national forest land.

"He's just part of the old patrone system," says Schiller.

"I'm not sure we have anything to talk about anymore," Bolander says. "I can't deal with Mark."

Bolander says he has made some concessions, such as eliminating the restaurant and keeping the expansion below a certain elevation, but Schiller is skeptical about these commitments.

Bolander says that under his current emergency water permit he can divert 22 acre-feet from the river per year, and that with or without his expansion, he will need to increase that amount to near 40 acre-feet per year, or face closing. (One acre-foot of water equals 325,851 gallons.) He says snow-making actually helps hold the water on the land longer, that he'll return up to 90 percent of the diverted water to the river as it melts and that the snow-making chemicals some acequia members are worried about are harmless.

Exasperated, Bolander insists, "This isn't a science issue anymore. It's a cultural issue. It's a "let's not change" issue. This kind of thing goes on all the time in northern New Mexico."

Schiller says Bolander's "science" is suspect, but he's equally concerned about the economics. If Sipapu is operating at 17 percent of capacity, as reported, Schiller wonders why expansion would increase its profitability. And how, if the Bolanders are strapped for cash, will they finance the construction?

Bolander says "economies of scale" make the expansion sensible, and that it will be done gradually over 20 years. He flatly denies an often-heard rumor in the valley that he might be working in concert with a prospective buyer who wants the additional water rights in place before sealing a deal.

He will not be pinned down on the question of Sipapu's closing, but if he loses at his hearing before the state engineer, he'll have to decide how much more litigation and stress he can take, he says.

The hearing was scheduled for Sept. 26, but was postponed so that the parties could try to negotiate a settlement.

"I won't put my father through any more of this," he says. "It's been a nightmare. He's developed pancreatic cancer. He's lived a very righteous life where he treated people right, and now to have people say these things about us and to watch the state basically stomp on your face ... I just won't let him go through that again."

Along the acequias, they believe even more is at stake - a whole regional culture, an intact piece of the American mosaic.

Bruce Selcraig is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

You can contact ...
* Sipapu Ski Resort Manager Bruce Bolander, 800/587-2240;
* Mayordoma Marie Coburn, 505/579-4635;
* Nicasio Romero, 505/421-7057;
* The New Mexico Acequia Association, P.O. Box 1881, Las Vegas, NM 87701 (505/698-2290).

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