Water deal could drain New Mexico's small towns

Northern New Mexico farmers fear cities will suck their communities dry

  • Upper Rio Grande River Basin

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Top of the World Farm aerial view

    Ernest Atencio photo courtesy of Amigos Bravos

SANTA FE, N.M. - Nouveau adobe homes are popping up like prairie dogs in the pinon and juniper hills here. Driving into this city from the north, orange road-construction barrels have become a common sight, and a four-lane highway cuts through rolling woodland to the west that only two years ago was untouched.

Santa Fe is bursting at the seams, as an affluent population and vacation trophy homes overflow into surrounding Santa Fe County. The county's population has grown by almost 25 percent in the last decade, and there's no sign of its slowing down.

In parched New Mexico, these new houses and newcomers require water. At present, the county has no central water system, so developers must drill wells. But now, the county wants to get into the water business. It has some water rights from the San Juan Chama Project, which pumps San Juan River water over the Continental Divide into the Rio Grande (HCN, 10/11/99: A home-grown Water War). It is also looking north to quench its thirsty citizenry.

One possible source lies almost 100 miles north, in the San Luis Valley near the Colorado border, where the county wants to buy water rights - about 588 acre-feet worth - from Top of the World Farms. The water had been used in center-pivot irrigation for potatoes, but Top of the World's absentee owners have not farmed there for several years.

The water will not satiate Santa Fe County's growing thirst for long - perhaps five years. But it is a foot in the door for the county to pipe up to 5,600 acre-feet of northern New Mexico water to its swelling suburbs each year.

Activists in northern New Mexico, who live in some of the poorest counties in the nation, say the move would violate a long-standing policy against transferring water rights from the upper Rio Grande basin to the middle basin. They worry that the transfer will open the floodgates for Santa Fe and Albuquerque to suck dry northern New Mexico's rural farm communities.

Representatives of the centuries-old acequia or ditch associations, several individuals and one environmental group have formally protested the transfer to the state engineer. Even local Democratic Rep. Tom Udall opposes the deal, saying at a recent town hall meeting that downstream cities should "keep their hands off acequia water rights," according to La Jicarita newspaper.

"It's one of the most significant water-policy issues in the state right now," says Paula Garcia, director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. "It's bringing to the surface a lot of issues and conflicting world views."

A dangerous precedent?

There's no law against transferring water rights from the upper Rio Grande basin, defined as anything above the Otowi gauge measuring station near Los Alamos, to the middle basin, which extends from etowi down to Elephant Butte reservoir near Truth or Consequences, says attorney Ed Newville with the New Mexico State Engineer's Office. But the state has discouraged such transfers because they would throw a wrench into water accounting under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, which divvies up the river's water among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

Under the compact, the more water that passes the Otowi gauge, the more New Mexico is obligated to deliver to Texas. So New Mexico prefers to take out what water it can above Otowi. Northern New Mexico water left in the river for cities in the middle valley would flow past the gauge, so a percentage of it would have to go to Texas.

Estevan Lopez, Santa Fe County's land-use and utilities director, says the Top of the World transfer will not cost New Mexico any water, because his county would divert the water above the Otowi gauge. The water would be siphoned out of the Rio Grande a half mile above the gauge through an "infiltration gallery," perforated pipes placed in the riverbed. The county would then pipe the water overland about 16 miles to the sprawling suburbs of Santa Fe.

The county hopes that drawing through the ground instead of directly from the river will yield cleaner water, avoiding the need for an expensive treatment plant. At full tilt, the infiltration gallery will eventually handle up to 5,600 acre-feet - over 1.8 billion gallons per year. That means the pipe could carry the Top of the World water plus more than 5,000 acre-feet.

Newville says his office "will be taking a very careful look (at the plan) to see that it does not create a compact problem that would be contrary to the public welfare."

Unraveling tradition

The rule against transferring water rights across the Otowi gauge has safeguarded rural northern New Mexico from the urbanizing middle valley. Community activists, working to protect acequias that have helped hold together Hispano villages since the 17th century, say the Top of the World transfer would destroy that safeguard by opening up the downstream market.

"It will create a vehicle by which to transfer water to cities and dry up the north," says Mary Humphrey, attorney for the environmental group Amigos Bravos, one of the groups fighting the transfer of water rights. "It's a horrible policy and could create a horrible precedent."

Garcia with the Acequia Association agrees. "People promoting water marketing are short-sighted; they're not looking ahead at the growing wealth and power of big corporations and other private interests who could come after our water," she says. "Poor communities cannot afford to react to all these transfers - it takes a lot of time, money, resources."

Most acequia members, called parciantes, view water as a shared community resource rather than as private property. "The idea of putting a price tag on water is a foreign concept that continues to alarm people," says Garcia. Pointing to all the lawns and golf courses in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, she adds, "It's ridiculous for cities to be looking at rural water rights when they're not conserving as much as possible."

At present, Santa Fe County has no comprehensive water conservation plan, says Lopez, "but we're working on it."

Lopez, a parciante himself, agrees that "we ought to be doing whatever we can to preserve acequia social and cultural structures." But he points out that Top of the World Farms is not associated with any acequias, and this transfer will not directly affect existing acequia water rights.

"Even if our application goes away," he adds, "it will not dissuade someone else from trying it in the future."

The State Engineer's office has delayed a final decision on the transfer until the county finishes an environmental assessment and obtains a right-of-way easement from the San Ildefonso Tribe. The county hopes to start test drilling this June.

The author writes from Arroyo Hondo, N.M. A former HCN intern, he spent three years as projects director for Amigos Bravos.

This story is part of a special series on the Rio Grande, funded with a grant from the McCune Foundation.


  • Paula Garcia, New Mexico Acequia Association, P.O. Box 32282, Santa Fe, NM 87594 (505/262-2797);
  • Estevan Lopez, Santa Fe County, P.O. Box 276, Santa Fe, NM 87504;
  • Ed Newville, office of New Mexico State Engineer, Legal Division, P.O. Box 25102, Santa Fe, NM 87504 (505/827-6150).

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Ernest Atencio

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