Chupadero’s Water Emergency

A Village Dealing with Drought

Commentary by ERIC SHULTZ

Chupadero’s compuerta: the creek’s full flow is not enough to reach half the acequia’s length. Photo by Eric Shultz.

The phone calls started in early May, recalled Chupadero water master Jack Miller. Some complained of low pressure. Others simply reported “no water.” Miller checked the two wells: the pumps cycled on and off, too quickly. He checked the association’s storage tank: empty. Checking the tank meant climbing up and looking inside, since the outside gauge had broken years ago and something always took priority over fixing the gauge.

I spoke with Jack and his wife Linda at their kitchen table. Linda is president of the water association, which she and others usually refer to as “the mutual domestic.” And I wasn’t there just as a reporter. The Millers are long-time friends and had been friends of my father long before I moved up to the Chupadero valley almost 20 years ago. We talked the way friends talk about things that matter, carefully choosing our words, openly admitting our limitations (“ask so-and-so, he’ll know for sure”), and occasionally letting ourselves laugh at the abundant absurdities. This latest crisis has convinced the Millers to step down from the mutual domestic and let a younger generation take over. They are both past retirement age but feel they can’t travel for more than a few days at a time due to their responsibilities. No one has stepped up to take over.

The mutual domestic began in the 1970s, when many in the valley still had hand-dug wells, although most of these had been fitted with electric pumps since the valley got electricity in the early ’50s. As the Millers recollect, the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act required the state to assist communities to improve water supplies. A former resident named Francis West provided a location, and with state funding and expertise, a well was drilled and water lines laid. And lo, the mutual domestic was born. But the state also taketh away. Only a decade later, in 1986, officials condemned Chupadero’s well for excessive natural fluoride (the Millers remember locals’ tooth enamel having a “mottled” appearance in those days). A descendent of one of the valley’s earliest settlers, David Roybal donated a new well site; an operator from the next village trenched from David’s place up to the road; they connected the new well to the main and the mutual domestic was quickly back in service. And that well has served the community up to the present.

Something changed in Jack’s voice when he mentioned his neighbor as the donor of the 1986 well site; I understood it as a tone of appreciation. To call the man a pillar of the community is true, but inadequate like any brief descriptive phrase would be.  For those who know him, the only accurate term for him is simply his name. His community and his country have relied on David Roybal to do the difficult and dangerous jobs such as soldiering (Purple Heart, Vietnam) and fighting fires (Los Alamos Fire Department). When he aged out of those roles he found other ways to help, such as delivering meals-on-wheels for the county. As a younger man, he always had a few cattle that he grazed up in the sierra. And for nearly 40 years, he has been the mayordomo of Chupadero’s cantankerous acequias. I live in a tiny community a couple of miles upstream and am mayordomo of our little acequia, but I’ve always looked up to David as a real mayordomo. Now he was getting phone calls, too. Not only was the mutual domestic in trouble, but the acequias wouldn’t run.

Even with the entire stream diverted into Chupadero’s acequia, less than 100 feet downstream the creek has recovered. Photo by Eric Shultz.

When news of Chupadero’s emergency reached us upstream, we shut off the acequias to our orchards and pastures, keeping open only an acequia-fed drip system for some strawberry beds beginning to bloom. I met David every day at the same time to check the flow at their head gate. With our upstream acequias off for several days, the flow at Chupadero fluctuated. With ours back on, it fluctuated within the same range as with ours off. There was no clear correlation between our diversion of water upstream and Chupadero’s flow below. We checked the upper ditch that supplies our valley with water from the Rio en Medio, and it was running normally. There just was not enough water. I helped David dam up the stream so every drop went into their acequia, and it was still not enough. And 100 feet below our dam, the stream had reappeared from out of the ground. It seemed just as strong as above the dam, reminding us that the current on the surface is not really the stream, but only one aspect of the stream.

The struggle to get the acequia to run is part of the emergency response, since when lacking indoor running water, having nearby outdoor running water would be a great thing and a bucketful of acequia water will flush a toilet as well as well water will. In this second year of extreme drought, Chupadero residents who can, are hauling water in to keep orchards and other valuable plantings alive. As for the mutual domestic, under a strict rationing regimen, the water is on between 5:30 and 9:00 in the morning and 6:00 and 8:00 at night. Jack has tuned pumps and valves to get a slower, steadier draw from the main and supplemental wells, and the storage tank is beginning to fill. Through a series of public meetings, the association has put out a call for a new well site. Proving yet again that those with the least are most willing to give, association secretary Julia Mundy offered a corner of her lot, but a lot so small that no part of it has the 200 feet of separation from the septic system required for a well site. Of the valley’s large owners, and there are many, none has come forward. As an incentive to donate a site, the association is offering free hook-up to the system (a $500 value) and free membership (worth $39 per month), but the mutual domestic has always served the old village. The affluent exurbanite new-comers have private wells, and square feet of house and acres of land in inverse proportion to their sense of community, or so their response to this emergency seems to suggest (in fairness, many properties are poorly situated for well sites or for connecting to the water system).

But even if it had a new well, the mutual domestic’s future would hardly be clear. The state required the association’s original members to transfer water rights to the community well, to the tune of 39 acre-feet per year. Then a few years ago, the Office of the State Engineer (OSE) informed the association that it was operating illegally, since there was no record of it having any water rights. In other words, OSE has conveniently lost the file, and the Chupadero Water and Sewer Association had to submit to a hearing. In 2002, offering water meter records that demonstrated beneficial use of at least 25 acre-feet per annum, Chupadero enlisted the clout of Representative Ben Luján to push through an emergency allocation. But in 2006, the OSE issued its decision recognizing the mutual domestic with rights to 12.59 acre-feet per year. This was based on an allowance of 60 gallons per person per day. Association members believe that an affluent neighboring subdivision – Vista Redonda – gets a personal daily allowance of 120 gallons from wells in the same aquifers. Whatever the case may be, 12.59 acre-feet per year, and 60 gallons per day, can lead to only one conclusion: ¡Qué pinche! Chupadero protested, and the OSE responded by adjusting its figure down to 11 acre-feet. Last month, the association filed a complaint against the OSE in court.

In the early days of the emergency, water master Jack and mayordomo David decided not to rely on memory, but to measure the actual depths of the mutual domestic’s two wells. They chose to sound the wells with a weight attach to a mono-filament nylon line. The line was attached to a reel attached to a fishing rod. While in the process of sounding the wells, their neighbor Enrique happened by. What ensued was a tale of underground rivers and oversize truchas that had Enrique – not a stupid man – hooked for a minute or two. No doubt the scene was so bizarre and their demeanor so convincing that it would have taken anyone a moment to sort things out. Some would see this as emblematic of New Mexico’s villages in general: situation desperate, but not serious. What I see are two men I’m lucky to have as neighbors and honored to call my friends.

La Jicarita will update our readers on the Chupadero situation as it develops.

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