The Interminable Abeyta/Pueblo Water Settlement

By: Bill Whaley
13 May, 2014

It seems the layperson, confronted by the Taos Pueblo/Abeyta Settlement can raise questions and/or accept on faith the conclusions of community leaders and their experts like engineers, hydrologists, lawyers, and various consultants. While the Settlement talks have gone on for 17 years, the original lawsuit, affecting the adjudication of Taos Pueblo’s water rights, was filed in 1969 by acequia parciantes and called “Abeyta” because the litigants were listed alphabetically. As for what is written below, this reporter cautions the reader that the report reflects my understanding of the project but it is “always subject to revision.”

At an information meeting for “objectors” at Town Hall, among the experts present on Monday night, May 12, were hydrologist John Shomaker and representatives from the Office of the State Engineer, Bureau of Reclamation, and Department of Justice. Longtime negotiators representing the parties to the Settlement included the Governor, WarChief, and staff of Taos Pueblo plus Nelson Cordova and Gilbert Suazo, Mayor Barrone and council members, Fritz Hahn, Judi Cantu, and Fred Peralta from the Town of Taos, John Painter of El Prado Water and Sanitation, and the 12 Mutual Domestic Community Water Associations represented by Mary Humphrey as well as Palemon Martinez of the Taos Valley Acequia Association (TVAA).

Taos County itself was not a party to the lawsuit but the commissioners, due to the Taos Regional Water Plan, are confronting the ramifications of the Settlement because of jurisdiction over county development as well as requests for water rights transfers to implement it. The County was incidentally represented, thanks to the dual role played by Mayor Dan Barrone, who is also a county commissioner.

An Utton Center attorney from UNM’s law school, Darcy Bushnell, ably and fairly facilitated the Monday nigh meeting. Several parciantes and property owners, served by private wells, asked questions, especially about the way supply, mitigation, and ASR (aquifer storage and recovery) wells would affect their water sources.

In general deep supply wells for drinking water re: the Town or El Prado will be drilled closer to the Rio Grande in order to take advantage of deep aquifers. Taos Pueblo will also drill a supply well but, as I understand it, nearer to the mountains. Apparently, deep-water wells that affect the Rio Grande negatively are to be offset by Taos’s San Juan—Chama water rights, the result of the Colorado River compact.

Five mitigation wells will be drilled nearer to the mountains, so as to offset and supplement the potential loss of surface or ground water in acequias or shallow wells, due to private well drilling.

A couple of ASR wells (Aquifer Storage and Recovery) will be drilled, one for instance, adjacent to the Rio Lucero, near Arroyo Seco and Taos Pueblo land, wherein water will be pumped out in winter and stored in the ground, then pumped up and released back into the acequia in summer. Another ASR well will be drilled closer to Arroyo Hondo.

After the court approves a final settlement but not before 2017, a NEPA document will be prepared, according to a Bureau of Reclamation spokesman, either an Environmental Assessment or and Environmental Impact Statement. According to a spokesperson for the Office of the State Engineer (OSE), the proposed wells in the Settlement would be vetted in terms of their potential impairment to existing wells.

In a concession to the Settlement, Taos Pueblo’s Gilbert Suazo said Taos Pueblo was instituting guidelines much like the regulations of the OSE in order to avoid impairing their own wells or wells of adjacent Pueblo property owners. Suazo also said Taos Pueblo was in the process of instituting a municipal water system for the Pueblo in order to mitigate the effects of private wells.

(Note: The Town of Taos has a municipal water system and ordinances mandating connections by residents but some residents, have yet to hook up, whether due to cost and a lack of accessibility and/or historically, political influence.)

Caveat: private well owners, whether adjacent to Taos Pueblo land in Arroyo Seco or out on Hondo Mesa, regardless of longevity, possess what are called junior water rights in comparison to Taos Pueblo’s senior or aboriginal water rights. As the attorney from DOJ said, the Settlement is about “Taos Pueblo’s water rights.” And as Nelson Cordova and Gilbert Suazo said, “It was not easy to make concessions and reach a balanced settlement.”

Meanwhile, as one of the attorneys pointed out, the OSE allows private property owners to drill wells and use about an acre foot of water a year for home use. According to last night’s presentation there are about 2000 wells in Taos Valley or the area affected by the Settlement. The County itself can and has passed more stringent subdivision regulations when it comes to drilling wells for residential development. During the approval process of the recent 31 unit custom home subdivision out on the mesa near Upper Hondo, the County met with representatives of Taos Pueblo in order to consider their concerns.

Both private property owners with well rights and acequia rights mentioned the lack of information, both technical and legal, available to the public (despite a history of public meetings on the issue). On the one hand negotiators were under a federal judge’s “gag order” for approximately 17 years or until 2006. On the other, last night’s private parties suggested a web site detailing information with links would help clarify issues for the public and provide the knowledge needed to understand the Settlement. Town of Taos Attorney Jake Caldwell indicated the Town might be considering a web site for the Settlement.

(Editor’s Note. It seems Settlement parties would be well advised to furnish “objectors” with information to avoid drawn-out legal battles. Since the Town recently hired away Taos County’s IT guy, Conrad Cordova, perhaps the Mayor, Councilors Hahn and Cantu should push for a Settlement web site in order to compensate County residents for the “brain drain.”)

At the Monday night meeting the experts made it clear that the Settlement had no provisions for “drought” but that it was based on best hydrology practices regarding, more or less, the historic patterns of surface and ground water flow.

On Saturday, May 17, as I understand it, TVAA will be holding a meeting, beginning at 11 am at the County’s Ag building. Parciantes can address Palemon and the board there, again, about the Settlement. Last night Spring Ditch parciante Jerome Lucero asked why the Settlement ignored “spring fed acequias” but he was ignored, again. Parciante Palomo Romo of Lower Las Colonias also asked about the dearth of information regarding the Settlement from the parciantes’ point of view. Though Arroyo Hondo parciante Alfred Trujillo barely commented last night, at a previous Taos County water advisory committee meeting, the long-time activist pummeled TVAA’s Palemon Martinez with questions about water rights transfers, ASRs, customs and historic water rights claims per court cases and land grants.

In conclusion, today, I am reminded that Dennis Hopper day is coming up on May 17. Author Lois Rudnick in her book, Utopian Visions, reminds readers that both Mabel Dodge Luhan and Dennis thought Taos was at the center of a new awakening in America. Thanks to Mabel’s help and her political legacy, Taos Pueblo beat back the Bursum Bill and won the Battle for Blue Lake. The Settlement is an indirect effect wrought by the members of Mabel’s salon, who advocated on behalf of Taos Pueblo and later helped preserve the villages of the Spanish-speaking natives of Taos during the depression era. You might say Mabel merely awakened the native Taosenos’ zest and genius for politics.

Now comes a new threat in the form of 21st Century growth and the search for energy sources. The frackers and the thirsty municipalities are coming. The oil and gas industry want to frack Mora and Rio Arriba counties. New Mexico’s downstream population centers are thirsty for the water of Taos County. According to the progressive press (Mother Jones, Truthdig, The Nation) Governor Susanna Martinez and tiny Mora County, our neighbor, are at the heart of the struggle to see whether this state and these counties will preserve and protect or allow corporate predators to pollute and waste water resources.

As the parciantes say, “Aqua es vida.”

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