By KAY MATTHEWS
Last Sunday, September 11, the parciantes of the Acequia del Llano de San Juan Nepomuceno voted overwhelmingly to cancel the three-quarter mile long, five-foot wide plastic pipe slated to replace their earthen Acequia Madre Cañon. While it was a victory for a small community, engaged in small-scale agriculture, the ramifications are much larger: traditional acequia systems can be maintained through active parciante participation despite changing demographics that often propel acequias to accept overbuilt solutions that burden them with debt and destroy riparian habitat and aquifer recharge.
It took a three-hour tortuous meeting to get to this decision at the Peñasco Community Center, often the scene of contentious gatherings. Many of the parciantes present called for an immediate up or down vote on the pipeline project by the Army Corps of Engineers that has been in the works since 2009. But Acequia del Llano commission president Ronnie Mascareñas, who chaired the meeting, said he would follow the agenda, which included several informational presentations and an update on funding. He reminded the parciantes that many of them had complained about not being in the loop on this acequia rehabilitation project that had mushroomed from a short section replacement of cement pipe to a $2.5 million project in which a five-foot diameter pipe would be placed two feet deep for three-quarters of a mile in the Acequia Madre Cañon, the feeder ditch that connects the Acequia del Llano’s presa near Hodges Campground with the main ditch that serves 220 parciantes in Llano.
Mascareñas filled everyone in on the easement issue that had tabled the agenda at the previous August 14 meeting when parciantes had also shown up to vote on the project. He read a letter from Taos County District Attorney Donald Gallegos stating acequia historical documents that established a 12 to 15 foot easement on each side of the ditch were adequate for the installation and maintenance of the pipe. Property owners—who are not parciantes—along the Acequia Madre Cañon had objected to the project, contesting the easement width, which many parciantes also felt was over estimated. Based on Gallegos’s opinion, the Army Corps of Engineers stated it would release the final environmental assessment on the project.
The meeting broke down for awhile over procedural issues regarding Robert’s Rules of Order and which agenda should be followed at the current meeting—the August 14 one that had been tabled because of the easement issues that were now supposedly revolved, or the September 11 agenda. The September 11 amended agenda was approved and the meeting proceeded.
Parciante Jean Nichols, who has publicly opposed the project, gave a powerpoint presentation that filmed the acequia in both April and August of this year, showing the lush vegetation on the ditch banks, the areas where maintenance work might be needed to shore up the banks, where previous work with a track-a-hoe had been successful, and some litter that could easily be removed by hand.
Parciante Bonafacio Vasquez’s slide presentation followed and showed many of the same areas of the acequia that Nichols did but was interpreted very differently. Vasquez, a commissioner on the acequia until last year, has been the main proponent of the pipeline project and the acequia liason with the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), the state agency that oversees the project, the Army Corps of Engineers, which designed the project, and Pate Construction, which bid on the project and actually initiated staging work before the project was finally approved. Vasquez went through the funding history of the project and contested accusations that parciantes hadn’t been kept informed of the increase in cost and size. He stressed that the vulnerable areas of the ditch could not be successfully maintained or rehabbed, and that the pipe was the best solution. The skepticism of the pariciantes was loudly expressed with laughs and boos.
Commissioner Mascareñas then updated the parciantes on the most recent funding status of the project. The parciante cost share of the $2.5 million project is 7.5 percent, approximately $220,000 (the ISC pays 17.5 percent, the Army Corps of Engineers pays 75 percent). The commission had already secured a donation of $25,000 to help the parciantes meet their obligation and additional funding of $75,000 was being sought through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
But in the end, none of that mattered. The vote was finally called. First, the parciantes had to determine how their debt would be paid if the project were to go through: in a one-time-per parciante assessment or an assessment by how much acreage each parciante owns. That vote was 83 to 16 for payment by acreage. Many acequias that maintain the democratic system of one parciante one vote on most acequia governance issues stipulate in their bylaws that financial assessments be made based on land ownership out of fairness.
With a sigh of relief, the final up or down vote was taken on the project: 75 parciantes voted to stop it and 23 voted to approve it. There was much congratulating all around, although a subsequent vote also had to be taken to allow the commission to pay the acequia’s percentage of the fee already incurred on the project: $160,000. There was discussion that perhaps that fee would be terminated, but parciantes will have to wait and see what position the ISC takes.
Many folks at the meeting expressed determination that this victory was also a lesson in participatory democracy and a reminder that all of us involved in the acequia community need to remain active in both the governance and physical labor needed to maintain that community. We all recognize that we can benefit from the cost share programs provided by the ISC, Taos Soil and Water Conservation District, and other government agencies. But we need to be cognizant of limits, both financial and physical. These are our acequias, after all.