By KAY MATTHEWS
It’s hard to shock reporters like Bill Whaley (Taos Friction) and me who’ve followed Taos City and County politics for many years. And it’s even harder to shock us over the shenanigans involved in the Abeyta Adjudication Settlement, but the powers that be let loose a little “shock and awe” the other day.
The Bureau of Reclamation scheduled a Taos Settlement Implementation Planning Meeting at the Taos Convention Center on December 5 from 9:30 to 12:30 pm. The parties to the Abetya Settlement all sat at a table with their backs to the audience, which largely consisted of parciantes who own water rights on the acequias within the Taos Valley that are part of the settlement. After introductions, the lawyers, bureaucrats, and Taos Pueblo representatives left the room for an “executive session.” They came back a few minutes later, declared there was nothing to report on the list of substantial agenda items dealing with the particulars of the Abeyta implementation. At 10:08 they had vacated the El Taoseño Room.
Why? Because Mike Tilley of local non-profit radio station KCEI was there to record the meeting (Bill and I were there, too, of course) and Taos Pueblo refused to participate in a recorded session. So instead of asking Mike Tilley to leave this “not open to the public” meeting, which is how the attorney Bradley Bridgewater of the Department of the Interior classified it, they essentially cancelled the meeting by claiming there was nothing to report. There may have been another reason as well, which I will discuss a little later in the article.
We, the taxpayers, were paying for these bureaucrats from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Denver, and Taos to be there, including their mileage, I’m sure. But instead of throwing the media out, as they did at the April meeting earlier this year (and restricting the public to a short comment period), they threw themselves out. Just before they left the room, one of the many parciantes who had come to observe the proceedings, asked if any future implementation meetings would be open to the public. Bridgewater again declared, “These aren’t public meetings.” The parciante responded, “Don’t we, as water rights owners, who will be impacted by the decisions made in this settlement, have any say in its implementation?”
The answer is obviously no. The reason why the answer is no might go something like this: “Water rights users were represented at the settlement negotiations by specified persons and lawyers who accepted an outdated Office of the State Engineer hydrologic model upon which to base this very complicated agreement of deep mitigation wells and Aquifer Storage and Recovery wells that the parciantes didn’t know anything about and mostly didn’t want to assure Taos Pueblo its first priority water rights and there is now no recourse because the settlement is a done deal.”
As I’ve discussed previously in La Jicarita, much of the concern of the parciantes 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 Dempsey.
These negotiations resulted in the proposal to drill deep mitigation wells to compensate for any surface water depletions in the future; to drill two deep wells near the Rio Grande to supply El Prado Water and Sanitation District; and the transfer of groundwater and surface water rights to compensate for aquifer mining. Once the parciantes on the affected acequias began to learn the details, they expressed their 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 percent of any Taos Valley tributary surface water depletions resulting from future groundwater pumping.
After the meeting I spoke with Chris Pieper, a commissioner on the Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y del Arroyo Seco, where the two Aquifer Storage and Recovery wells are supposed to be drilled. His ditch has long expressed its concerns regarding the costs and chemical risks of these wells and he told me of a recent conversation with a New Mexico Environment Department official who confirmed their fears. According to this official, treatment costs of water from these 1,000-foot deep aquifer wells will be prohibitive; the only way to meet state standards is through reverse osmosis, a multi-million dollar expenditure. Chris believes that the meeting was also cancelled because the technical team that was supposed to address agenda item #1, “Follow-up on OSE [Office of the State Engineer] model ‘update’ discussion,” had no follow-up to report. Would newer, more informed hydrologic models also confirm parciantes’ doubts about the efficacy of these mitigation wells?
At the implementation meeting there was a handout provided that showed the status of all the projects included in the settlement. The mitigation wells range in depth from 800 to 1,000 feet, the Town of Taos and El Prado Water and Sanitation District wells range in depth from 800 to 2500 feet, and the two Aquifer Storage and Recovery Wells are 1000 feet deep. Here’s a brief overview of the projects and their costs:
• Rio Hondo mitigation well of Upper Rio Hondo: Implementation and funding still not determined. $1,331,113.
• Rio Lucero/Rio Pueblo de Taos mitigation well of Upper Ranchitos: Lawyer Mary Humphrey is withdrawing her representation because she’s been unable to make contact with the commission. $1,946,207.
• Rio Fernando de Taos mitigation well in the Town of Taos: Working on location and financial assistance application. $1,265,551.
• Rio Grande del Rancho mitigation well of Llano Quemado: Working on relocation of well and financial assistance. $1,761,792.
• Rio Chiquito mitigation well of Acequia Madre del Rio Chiquito and Acequia del Monte: Entity not interested in constructing the project. $1,179,319.
• Arroyo Seco Arriba Project, Aquifer Storage and Recovery Option of Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y del Arroyo Seco: Undetermined whether they want to move forward with the project (see July 14, 2016 article in La Jicarita on the acequia’s objections to the project.) $8,137,960.
•Arroyo Seco Arriba Project, Surface Storage Reservoir Option: Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y del Arroyo Seco: Not determined if the acequia wants to move forward with this option instead of the wells. $8,137,960.
• Acequia Madre del Prado Stream Gage of Acequia Madre del Prado: Have not begun financial assistance process. $10,924.
• Bataan Well, Rio Pueblo Well, National Guard Well, Klauer Well, Camino del Medio Well of the Town of Taos: Working on financial assistance application. $16,822,112.
• Rio Grande Well and Midway Well of El Prado Water and Sanitation District: Financial Assistance has been awarded. $15,545,022.
• Buffalo Pasture Recharge Project of Taos Pueblo: Working on design for mitigating settlement parties Buffalo Pasture depletions.
It’s very interesting that the only well projects that have been funded thus far belong to El Prado Water and Sanitation District. As I’ve documented in many previous La Jicarita articles, El Prado’s water rights allotment in the settlement, the water transfers necessary to achieve these water rights, and the amount of money designated to acquire these rights, have been very controversial and protested by Taos County (later rescinded under Commissioner Tom Blankenhorn’s lead) and individuals (disclosure: I was a protestant). Under the leadership of John Painter El Prado has always played a major role in Taos County politics and its status within the Abeyta Settlement reflects that.
Now that the Abeyta Settlement has entered the implementation stage, the lawyers and parties argue that it’s too late for revision. Unfortunately, during the development stage, there wasn’t enough information sifting down to the people on the ground to know what exactly was being developed. The lawyers and parties to the Abeyta also fought long and hard against any oversight by the County and its citizens, particularly by the Taos County Public Welfare Advisory Committee that was created by the Taos County Public Welfare Ordinance to review all water transfers from and within the county to determine if they are in the public interest of county citizens.
We’ll continue to watch what happens if several of the acequia communities refuse the development of mitigation wells or the aquifer storage and recovery wells. How far will the powers that be push their authority? Stay tuned.