By KAY MATTHEWS
When protestors show up with signs and the bureaucrats are rattled you know it’s going to be an interesting day. It happened on April 27 in Taos when parciantes from several acequias who are defendants in the Abeyta Adjudication Settlement came to a “Taos Settlement Implementation Planning Meeting” to let the bureaucrats know that they don’t like the terms of the settlement that will most directly affect their acequias—deep mitigation wells and Aquifer Storage and Recovery wells. These wells are part of a complicated proposal to assure Taos Pueblo its first priority water rights while keeping the waters flowing in the 54 non-pueblo Taos Valley acequias.
I wrote last week about the objections to the settlement voiced by the Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y del Arroyo Seco, which is slated to receive retired water rights from the Questa Community Ditch that will be diverted from the Rio Lucero in the winter, stored in deep ASR wells, and then pumped from the wells during the irrigation season to augment the acequia system. The Acequia Madre parciantes object to the project because of the costs involved in maintaining the wells, the questionable quality of the chemically treated water, and the impact the pipeline will have on their traditional acequia. The acequia commission wrote a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation, the Office of the State Engineer, and the Interstate Stream Commission to formally “not pursue the ASR wells project.”
It turns out they’re not the only ones concerned about deep wells. The commissioners of the Madre del Llano Acequia also sent a letter to the agencies outlining their similar concerns: cost and maintenance of the wells; the unknown chemical composition of the deep well water on the river; and the potential drawdown on the aquifer and domestic wells. According to the settlement, the mitigation wells, which reach a 1,000 feet or more into the deep aquifer, will be used by the town of Taos, El Prado Water and Sanitation District, and the mutual domestics to offset at least 50% of any Taos Valley tributary surface water depletions resulting from future groundwater pumping.
The end of the Madre del Llano Acequia letter reads:
“We would like to see far more effort made in conservation and other alternatives to these ASR and mitigation wells. We believe the decision to use this extremely expensive and potentially destructive solution was not made in the spirit of promoting long term health to our environment, nor the well being of general population living in Taos County.
“As per Article 13.3 in the Abeyta Settlement, we would like to reconvene and negotiate a more sustainable solution, and forgo the mitigation wells.”
So when these folks showed up with their signs, the bureaucrats, or representatives of the Bureau of Reclamation, which is the agency responsible for the implementation of these wells, first told them the meeting was not open to the public and they were stuck out on the porch in the rain. After the press arrived—the Taos News and La Jicarita—and some of the attorneys representing the parties to the settlement raised an objection, the acequia commissioners were allowed to enter the meeting “to express their concerns” and then leave. Then John Painter, a member of the El Prado Water and Sanitation District, proposed that the commissioners from the acequias be allowed to stay throughout the meeting, as the lawyers and agencies would be discussing the very wells they’re concerned about. So only the press—the Taos News and La Jicarita—were asked to leave.
We did get to hear from several of the commissioners and parciantes before our departure, however. As I’ve discussed previously in La Jicarita, much of their concern stems from what they believe is a lack of transparency and communication from those who negotiated the settlement agreement. The settlement negotiations were held behind closed doors by representatives of the designated parties: the Town of Taos; Taos Pueblo; El Prado Water and Sanitation District; the mutual domestic associations; and the Taos Valley Acequia Association (TVAA), representing 54 acequias in the Taos Valley. Even though the Abeyta Settlement was signed in 2010, many of affected parciantes claim they were largely left out of the information loop. Their interests in the settlement were represented by Palemon Martinez, chairman of the board of the TVAA and attorney Rebecca Desmpsy. Martinez was also the former secretary of the Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y del Arroyo Seco, who negotiated the water transfer from the Llano Community Ditch to the Acequia Madre ditch for the ASR wells (that transfer was protested by the Llano Community Ditch but was approved by the OSE).
The Arroyo Hondo parciantes I spoke with before the meeting expressed the same lack of communication between those who negotiated the settlement and the rank and file. Pam Harris, of the Arroyo Hondo Mutual Domestic Association told me that the association had spent years and money getting the uranium out of their well system and are concerned about what chemicals the mitigation wells may present. A representative of the Acequia Monte de Rio Chiquito questioned the BOR as to whether the financing of the mitigation wells will be for perpetuity, as his acequia, like that of Arroyo Hondo and Acequia Madre, cannot cover the costs. Bill Woodall, of the Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y del Arroyo Hondo, stated that he had attempted to conduct a feasibility study of the ASR wells on his own (the BOR will have to conduct either an environmental assessment or and environmental impact statement before the well system is built) and concluded that the maintenance costs are well beyond the capacity of the acequia. He also accused the government agencies of “leading people into a cycle of water use and growth that is unsustainable” with a massive spending of funds that encourages people to “grow more grass” [i.e., hay and alfalfa]. How can they sell this to people who can’t afford it?” When I spoke with Woodall the next day he also told me that the acequia doesn’t want the transferred water rights from Questa: “Give them back or sell them. We have our water allotment from the settlement that will maintain our traditional uses.”
The BOR representatives did tell the parcianteds and press that they would hold a public meeting concerning the ASR and mitigation wells sometime this summer.