By KAY MATTHEWS
Editor’s Note: Taos activist, artist, colleague, and friend Butchie Denver died a year ago on June 25th. A lot has happened since then in Taos County water politics and policy, the genesis of which lies largely with her. So I thought I’d write her this letter, not only to let her know the scoop—at least from my perspective—but to relieve my itch to share the details with someone who so intimately knew the details, the people, the movidas, and what it means in all of our lives.
The Taos County Public Welfare Advisory Committee, which you helped establish at the end of 2010 under a county ordinance after the water brokers involved in the Taos Regional Water Plan deep sixed it, is alive and well despite political challenges. To my knowledge it was the first, and remains the only, such committee established in New Mexico to help define what constitutes the concept of “public welfare,” which is one of the criteria the Office of the State Engineer uses to approve or deny water transfers. The OSE dodged the issue for years but now we have a template, Taos County Ordinance 2010-4.
The committee, comprised of nine representatives (disclosure: I am the chair) from the five county sub-regions and four members at large (and you Butchie, not an “official” member but our heart and soul), have reviewed and analyzed a number of proposed water transfers within and from Taos County to asses whether they would or wouldn’t be detrimental to the public welfare of county citizens. You were with us for the most controversial of these transfers: El Prado Water and Sanitation District (EPWSD) applications to meet the terms of the Abeyta settlement (Taos Pueblo adjudication), which includes new appropriations, the movement of wells away from Taos Pueblo (concerned about keeping its traditional Buffalo Pasture wet), accessing water from deep aquifer wells tapping into the Rio Grande, and transferring water rights from Top of the World.
It’s complicated, to say the least, and the committee, with your help, did its homework, interviewed John Painter, who is the manager of the EPWSD, and came to the conclusion that we didn’t have enough information to determine whether all this movement of water (the district is asking for a sizable increase in its water rights) was sustainable, appropriate, or even feasible. So we made our recommendation to the County Commission to protest several of the transfer applications, and the commission did so, in 2011.
As we discussed many times, the parties to the Abeyta settlement, who spent many years drafting that agreement among the Taos Valley constituencies to avoid a priority call by Taos Pueblo, were some of the folks who prevented the establishment of the public welfare committee under the Taos Regional Water Plan. They figured that what was good for Taos Valley—at least in their opinion—should be good for the rest of the county as well. But the Public Welfare Committee was set up to look at all water transfers and to assess their impact on all the citizens of Taos County, not just the parties to the Abeyta.
To no one’s surprise (but to your chagrin, I’m sure) the newly elected county commissioner who took office in 2013 and whose district includes El Prado, Tom Blankenhorn, has asked that the county commission “revisit” its decision to protest the EPWSD water transfer applications. So the committee has been called in on two different occasions before the commission to explain its reasoning. In his public statements and cross examination of the committee Commissioner Blankenhorn has made it clear that he, too, believes the Abeyta settlement shouldn’t be messed with, and if all these EPWSD water applications are part of that agreement, then so be it.
The commission has scheduled one more meeting with the committee and the EPWDS to discuss the protest in August, but as I expressed to Commissioner Blankenhorn, the committee did its job to the best of its ability and if the commission wants to take another vote that’s its job, not ours. It’s an interesting irony that while the committee has no real power—we can only recommend that the county protest a transfer—and the county in turn has no power to stop a transfer—that’s in the hands of the OSE—so much time was spent to block its inclusion in the regional water plan by the Abeyta parties and now to reverse its recommendation to protest the EPWSD. This time around, however, there’s a more obvious political movida: the county and EPWSD are co-litigants in a lawsuit to prevent the Town of Taos from annexing the New Mexico State Highway 64 corridor through El Prado to the Taos airport.
Amendments to Public Welfare Ordinance
But it’s nice being taken seriously. County Manager Stephen Archuleta and Assistant Manager and Planner Rick Bellis are proposing amendments to the Public Welfare Ordinance that would actually give the committee more responsibility. A public hearing will be held today, July 16, to discuss and consider replacing Taos County Ordinance 2010-4 with an amended version that would expand the duties of the committee “To assist and advise the County (including the County Planning Commission, County Planning staff and County Commission) with regards to long-term water planning (including the development and updating of a water element to the County Comprehensive and Growth Management Plan), water resource management, development-related impacts to water resources and as regards water conservation.” The committee will be provided staff and technical support through the Planning Department who will be responsible for many of the administrative tasks: coordination of meetings; public notification; recording meeting minutes; and to act as liaison with the County Commission. The amendment would also set up a centralized library where all information pertaining to water transfers within Taos County as well as other information critical to water planning and protection of water resources.
The committee invited geologist Paul Bauer and hydrologist Peggy Johnson of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Tech, whose brains you loved to pick, to make a presentation to us and county staff on the water mapping work they have been doing in the Taos area. Over the years these two scientists have put together the most extensive picture of the geology and hydrology of the Taos region: analyzing and documenting the layers of soils and rock, monitoring and testing wells, analyzing water samples for age, doing all things they do to put together a map of a specific area’s hydrogeology. They’ve also conducted an extensive survey of springs that feed the Rio Grande as it travels down from Ute Mountain to the Rio Arriba County line.
The impetus behind the invitation is the looming water transfer application that Santa Fe County and the Bureau of the Interior will file to move 1,700 afy from Top of the World Farms to the Rio Grande direct diversion project in the Pojoaque Valley, as stipulated in the Aamodt water adjudication settlement. The looming question is about the connection between these TOW underground water rights and Rio Grande surface water rights. If the pumps remain idle at TOW will the underground aquifer move to the Rio Grande and if so, how long will it take?
While Bauer and Johnson were able to answer a lot of other questions, the answer to this one remains illusive as TOW, in Sunshine Valley, is the only area of the county where the two have not engaged in water mapping: they’ve done it in the Rio Hondo area, the north Taos plateau, and are currently mapping the southern part of the Valley in the Ranchitos area at the behest of the county, partly in response to the proposed Miranda Canyon subdevelopment proposal that arose several years ago (and was struck down by the county commission).
We did learn some interesting things that relate to both the Abeyta and Aamodt settlements, however: 1) the proposed deep aquifer wells that will be used in the Abeyta settlement are separated from shallow water aquifers in the Taos Valley by severe fault lines where not enough data has been accumulated to tell us whether these faults will influence the amount of water that will be available from the wells; and 2) there can be a 50-year “residence” time in underground stream flows from the Arroyo Hondo area to the Rio Grande.
Ultimately, without the kind of information that Bauer and Johnson can provide with water mapping, much of the rationale behind the movement and offsets of water in both settlements is supposition. The United States Geologic Survey is currently conducting geophysics work in the upper Taos plateau that may supply some answers, and the committee has urged the county to move forward with water mapping of this last contested region of Taos County that is so critical to our water future.
I don’t remember if you were with us years ago when a group called Friends of the McCarthy Ranch went to visit “Taos’s last great grasslands” on Upper Ranchitos Road in 2002 to kick off a campaign to try and put the ranch in a land trust. A working cattle ranch that had been in the McCarthy family for many years, 170 acres of the ranch were up for sale to settle the family estate. The group explored various options to raise the $2.5 million asking price to preserve what it described as “the largest uninterrupted expanse of pastures left in Taos: 170 irreplaceable acres, watered by natural springs, year-round creeks, and the cottonwood-lined Rio Pueblo.”
Well, the Friends failed, and the ranch was sold to private owners who through the years over grazed it, built various houses, barns, and horse corrals, and eventually a 34,000 square-foot “main-house” that the current owner, as Blackstone Ranch, wants to use as a “corporate retreat.” There was some back and forth between the County Planning Department and the ranch as to whether ranch permit codes needed to be changed from “residence” to “commercial” (it’s taxed as residential) but for now, until new county land codes are enacted, the current permit stands.
Now the ranch has applied to transfer just under 12 acre feet per year of surface water rights from the Alamitos Acequia to a groundwater well to irrigate landscaping around the “main-house,” a small orchard, gardens, greenhouse, and “fire-prevention pond”—which translates to 6 afy of groundwater. Their geohydrologist, Jay Lazarus (as you remember, one of those who vociferously opposed the creation of the Public Welfare Committee), is quite frank about the reason for the transfer: it will insure the ranch irrigation water when there isn’t enough water in the acequia.
This, of course, sets a bad precedent: as surface water continues to dry up more and more irrigators will want to pump groundwater instead. It’s already happening in southern New Mexico—and on a much larger scale than 12 afy of water—as farmers dependent on Elephant Butte Irrigation District for irrigation come up short and pump groundwater to save their crops.
The Acequia de la Otra Banda, which originates on the Blackstone Ranch, stepped up to the plate and filed a protest of the Blackstone transfer application, citing potential impairment of the springs that originate on the ranch and feed the Otra Banda acequia: “The springs have already diminished substantially from the flow that was common in the 1980s, so we are certain the continuation of irrigated agriculture in the community is already in jeopardy. The introduction of a well capable of extracting 10 acre feet per year, into a basin that is already in decline, will very likely reduce or eliminate the spring flow that supplies the Otra Banda.”
Mark Schuetz, chair of the Otra Banda commission, consulted with the Public Welfare Committee on the protest (the fact that the committee did not recommend the county commission protest the transfer application does not constitute an endorsement of the application), and also wrote a complaint to the Taos district attorney accusing Blackstone Ranch of obstructing access to the acequia and failing to engage in water sharing. And, interesting enough, Taos Pueblo also protested the ranch’s transfer application, claiming that because a portion of the move-from acreage irrigated by the Alamitos water rights has effectively been “abandoned—the official status of irrigated land that is covered by roads and/or structures—the transfer impairs the Pueblo’s exercise of its Historically Irrigated Acreage under the terms of the Abeyta settlement (this is a complicated provision of the agreement that requires a lengthy explanation beyond what I can provide here). The Pueblo also claims that “The transfer of forfeited or abandoned water rights is contrary to the public welfare and conservation of water in the State of New Mexico. “
So that’s the scoop, Butchie: some good, some bad, some yet to be determined. The struggle over water will only intensify as both the drought and climate change turn attention to Taos County water supplies, but at least for now it seems the county administration is trying to rise to the challenge. We’ll see if the county politicos actually let them do their job.