Taos County Commission Votes to Protest Top of the World Water Transfer

By KAY MATTHEWS

The Taos County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to protest the application by Santa Fe County and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to transfer Top of the World Farm water rights to the Pojoaque Valley at its April 21st meeting. The 1,700 acre feet per year (afy) of water rights, formally used at TOW to grow an abundant array of crops and supply grazing for cattle and sheep, are slated to meet the terms of the Aamodt Settlement yet-to-be-built regional water system. Taos County will argue that the transfer is not in the public welfare interests of the citizens of Taos County, based on the recommendation of the Taos County Public Welfare Advisory Committee. As I’ve covered extensively in previous La Jicarita articles, arguing a case on the basis of public welfare, one of the three criteria that can be used in a hearing before the Office of the State Engineer (OSE), could be precedent setting: there has never been case law established under that criteria.

Actually winning a case based on a public welfare argument will be an uphill battle, particularly in light of the fact that the OSE has been a partner in the settling of both the Pojoaque Valley Aamodt Adjudication and the Taos Valley Abeyta Adjudication and is the agency through which state funding to pay for these settlements is funneled. The Taos County Commission failed to protest watershed transfers within the Abeyta Settlement that the Public Welfare Advisory Committee also recommended be protested. The following editorial that I wrote for the Taos News (April 23-29) explains why people urged the County to protest water transfers in both adjudication settlements.

“In the April 12 online Taos News article “Taos County farm transfer a paper-water loss, but a wet-water gain,” J.R. Logan quotes New Mexico Tech hydrologist Peggy Johnson on the pending water rights transfer from Top of the World (TOW) to the Pojoaque Valley: “I’ve never really understood what the drama was over transferring those water rights out of the county . . . it ultimately goes back in the river, it just means a healthier river corridor.” This statement begs a response that addresses the larger issues that are in play: local autonomy; the commodification and marketing of water; and the integrity of the commons.

As a journalist I’ve covered the promulgation of both the Aamodt water adjudication settlement in the Pojoaque Valley and the Taos Valley Abeyta settlement. Initially, I thought the Abeyta the better of the two agreements, as it seemed to adhere to a philosophy that with proper management Taos Valley could meet its present and future water needs without the movement of water from watershed to watershed. The Aamodt, on the other hand, proposed to move 1,700 acre feet of water from TOW to the Pojoaque Valley for a water delivery system that many of its parties—there are over 700 Objectors to the terms of the settlement—didn’t want in the first place.

Then we found out about the backroom deals that propose to move water from watersheds that were not parties to the Abeyta, outside the Taos Valley, to watersheds within the valley and into the hands of the water brokers who have leveraged millions of dollars from the state of New Mexico to underwrite this movement of water. It’s not only a sweet deal for Taos Pueblo, whose first priority standing has largely dictated the terms of the settlement, but for the longtime power brokers in the Valley who will determine how these waters are put to beneficial use: to lease downstream; to underwrite the expansion of the Taos Airport; to support policies that encourage the growth of more houses, more resorts, and more amenities whose economic contribution to the community is poor paying service jobs and ultimately more people whose inherited wealth does not trickle down.

As far back as 2004 Santa Fe County told the protestants of the county’s original application to transfer 588 acre feet of TOW water that if the second application to transfer the remaining 1,100 afy was protested, the county would try to acquire the San Juan/Chama water rights that were slated for the Abeyta Settlement. As Logan reported in last week’s Taos News, when Santa Fe County proposed trading TOW water rights for the San Juan/Chama water rights, the Abeyta water brokers turned it down. Why? San Juan/Chama water is more marketable, particularly below Otowi Gauge (which separates the upper Rio Grande basin from the middle and lower basins), and Taos Pueblo, along with the other Abeyta parties, want to be able to market the water. Santa Fe County’s interests are really no different; in the late 1990s, when it acquired the first installment of TOW water, the plan was to pipe it across the Otowi Gauge directly to the city and county of Santa Fe.

A map of the Top of the World wells that the County of Santa Fe (in red) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (in blue) own from which they want to transfer the water rights.
A map of the Top of the World wells that the County of Santa Fe (in red) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (in blue) own from which they want to transfer the water rights.

There is a profound difference between economic growth and economic development. Elinor Ostrom, a much admired professor of economics at Indiana University, was an influential voice who explicated this difference in the language of the commons: shared resources can be managed by the people whose lives are directly affected at the local level by the management of our land and water, not dictated to by the state or the market.

Those who believe in the integrity of the commons work to keep water in its area of origin, where its ecological integrity is maintained by its connection to geography, climate, and relationship to those who value it as a resource, not a property right.

Those who believe that market forces should dictate the movement of water, which has been defined by the state as private property, don’t want any regulatory or public oversight to get in the way of development. Allowing natural resources to help determine sustainable growth and development patterns is not the way things work in a market economy.

The Water Advisory Committee did its due diligence at the April 6 hearing and unanimously recommended that the county commission protest the proposed transfer of the TOW water rights based on criteria that help define the public welfare of the citizens of Taos County.”

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One comment

  1. There would be NO FIRST PRIORITY STANDING for any Pueblos if Guadeloupe de Hildago were to be honored. Property rights specifically including Water rights were to be protected. The Acequias did not historically use First priority . When hard times come and those whose families have farmed for hundreds of years realize their farms and gardens are now illegal there will be a painful accounting of all these shenanigans. Golf Courses and fountains made from your neighbors water.

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