Downstream Acequias Protest Sipapu Water Transfer Request

[Editor’s Note: Ten acequias in the Dixon/Embudo valley filed a protest of the Sipapu water transfer application, which La Jicarita reported on last week (November 1). The acequias object to the proposed cross-basin transfer of 100 afy on the grounds that it will impair their water rights and is contrary to the public welfare. The following is a copy of the protest.]

November 6, 2012

To the State Engineer:

The undersigned acequias of the Embudo Valley, represented by their elected commissioners, protest the application (Application #: Sp-2847-N into SD-03525) of Sipapu Recreational Development ll, LLC to change the point of diversion, place, and purpose of use of 100 acre-feet of Jicarilla Nation San Juan-Chama Contract water. There are ten acequias in Dixon and Embudo which draw water from the Rio Embudo, the principal source of which is the Rio Pueblo.  Our senior water rights go back to at least 1725 when the Embudo land grant was made for agricultural purposes. Our objections to this transfer are based on detriments to our water rights and detriments to the public welfare.

The applicant proposes to offset water losses to the Rio Grande with San-Juan Chama water, but this does not offset in any way withdrawals from the Rio Pueblo-Rio Embudo watershed in which Sipapu is located, leaving downstream users above the confluence of the Rio Grande and Rio Chama with a full 100 acre-foot detriment. A cross-basin transfer of this kind would set a dangerous precedent and provide an approved mechanism for any amount of the Rio Pueblo-Rio Embudo water to be permanently removed. We also question the figure of 28% consumptive percentage. To our knowledge, that figure was derived from a Colorado ski area study in 1990. The altitude and latitude there do not correspond to the geographic characteristics of Sipapu, and the climate was different 22 years ago.  We are in a climate phase of increasing temperature and decreasing humidity. Unless the consumptive percentage is calculated currently, and specifically in Sipapu or in a place similarly situated in altitude and latitude, we do not regard the figure as valid.

Despite the published comments of Sipapu’s General Manager, John Bradley, the river is not “just flowing down the canyon in the late fall”. We are still irrigating in November. We are planting overwintering crops like garlic, and cover crops, and irrigating our orchards. In addition, the river is providing our drinking and household water from the saturation zone around the Rio Pueblo-Rio Embudo waterway. The 350 acre-foot withdrawal in November and December will diminish our irrigation flows, make the saturation zone drier and diminish the plume of underground water from the river which replenishes our wells. Wells going dry are already a problem in our area, and this action would exacerbate the problem. In addition, the drier saturation zone will need more water in the spring to re-saturate it, and that will reduce river flows available for irrigation.

Another fallacy is that the large reservoir of man-made snow at Sipapu can be a boon to irrigators in the spring. The timing of the melt and the time when we have shortages of irrigation water do not coincide. In fact, the timing of the ski area runoff coincides with the peak of the natural spring runoff, and only serves to increase the risk of damaging flooding. We are far more in need of the water in fall and winter to irrigate, fill our wells and provide moisture to the soil.

An additional impairment to our water rights exists in terms of degraded water quality. The water returned to the watershed by Sipapu ski slope runoff will not be of equal quality to the water pumped out of the river. It will contain snowmaking chemicals and ski wax, and possibly freezing salts, which will enter the irrigating and drinking water of downstream residents. Ski wax contains perfluorochemicals (PFCs).  PFCs are contained in Teflon and Scotchgard and are known to cause liver damage, birth defects, hormone disruption, thyroid dysfunction and cardiovascular disease. The EPA describes them as “persistent in the environment” and a “suggestive” carcinogen. Freezing salts, depending on which are used, create additional toxicities in the environment. Increasing by a factor of approximately 20 the amount of contaminated snowmelt from Sipapu that is entering the Rio Pueblo and Rio Embudo will have the potential to harm both the environment and its inhabitants.

The proposed water transfer is also a detriment to the public welfare.  A living river with stream flow adequate in all seasons to support populations of fish, birds, other wildlife, insects, trees and shrubs is a valued resource in the community, as well as a vital link in the web of nature which is increasingly under threat. We are already living with severe drought conditions, and tree and soil moisture levels are so low that we are increasingly exposed to devastating fires. One such fire occurred this past summer in the hills above Dixon, and another occurred in the riparian area of central Dixon in the past two years. This has diminished bird nesting and roosting sites, food and shelter for deer and bears, and shade for fish, among other harms. Any additional depletions of our water resources will exacerbate the risks to our safety and further undermine our welfare and the welfare of the natural world that sustains us.

Going from a diversion of 18.4 acre-feet to one of 350 acre-feet is a 2000% (two thousand percent) increase from last year, and is therefore a radical departure from current practice. Sipapu would like this extra water in order to maintain their ski area marketing stance of “first to open, last to close”. That stance may become increasingly untenable given predictions of a warming and drying Southwest in years to come. In fact, the drying climate has already affected our irrigation practices. Historically, water rationing among acequias in the Dixon-Embudo area has been necessary only occasionally and briefly during early summer. But in the last few years, dry conditions have necessitated the continuation of water-sharing through more and more of the agricultural season, increasing the stress involved with rationing and conflict resolution.  Any further water withdrawals at all, in any season, will contribute to the general drying out of our watershed, and be a detriment to both our water rights and our welfare. It is unjust and unfair to ask downstream acequia communities to absorb massive increases in water withdrawals to compensate Sipapu for a changing climate, when we are already straining locally to cope with those changing conditions.  A pulse of unneeded, rushing, contaminated water in the spring represents an extreme disruption of the natural rhythms and flows of our river and is no substitute for a steady, gentle flow of natural stream water all fall and winter. We strongly oppose this transfer and request a hearing, as allowed by state statute, in the event the State Engineer intends to consider the application on its merits.

Photo by Eric Shultz

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