By KAY MATTHEWS
Ike DeVargas was raised by his grandparents in a part of La Madera called El Llanito on the Rio Vallecitos. Here he hiked, fished, and hunted the river canyons north towards the llano of Los Ancones and south along the acequias that irrigated the fields of the village. That was almost 60 years ago. Today, on both sides of Llanito, concerns have arisen over the use of water: the traditional acequias, where newcomers have been developing properties, and the dryland llano, where a resort called Rancho de Vallecitos is being developed. Members of the La Madera community have organized a group called Acequia and Aquifer Water Watchers to monitor the developments and ensure a clean, safe, and adequate water supply that is distributed and used fairly and legally.
None of this kind of activity is new to the villages of northern New Mexico as demographics change. The traditional caretakers of the acequias are growing older and their children are leaving home for better employment opportunities elsewhere. It remains to be seen if they will come back, as many of their parents and grandparents did after being forced to leave temporarily to find work. The querencia that inhabits their souls kept their land and traditions intact. But the more recent migrations have created a vacuum filled by those seeking a similar lifestyle (hippies, yuppies, and everyone in between) without the traditional knowledge—or desire—to maintain the delicate balance that keeps everyone afloat. Thus the land and water conflicts continue and at times escalate.
“Your New Mexico Fly Fishing and Recreation Dreams Start Here.” That’s the billing on the Santa Fe real estate site promoting river front lots in Rancho de Vallecitos. The “ranch” owns about 50 acres on the east side of State Highway 111 along the Rio Vallecitos and 800 acres on the dry, west side that are being divided into building sites. On another real estate website it states that “only seventeen owners will ever share this pristine place . . . With lots that range from 5 to 76 acres.” The community is fenced and gated, some wells are in place, and two log cabin shells have been built.
On the plat for the riverside lots, it shows one lot sold, one pending, and three 5-acre lots that range in price from $225,000 to $235,000. The plat for the west side of the resort, which they are calling Plateau Ranches, shows four ranches sold (they’re all named) that vary in size from 48 to 76 acres and $160,000 to $300,000 in price (two of them have a cabin shell).
Rancho de Vallecitos is classified as a “summary subdivision,” which allows for a less stringent administrative review and public hearing process by the county: the Rio Arriba County Planning and Zoning Department’s public hearing in 2015, which was attended by several dozen residents of La Madera and neighbors in nearby villages, met those requirements.
None of the subdivision is on irrigated land, although one map that Water Watch members Ike DeVargas and Deborah Begel saw in a New Mexico Legal Aid office referenced “Native American” water rights and usage in the distant past. According to DeVargas, “In all my years of hiking and fishing in that area, I never saw evidence of irrigation.” Plateau Ranches will be served by domestic wells, and the river front properties will be able to hook up to the Ancones Mutual Domestic Water Association water system. This water system, which according to documents at the Office of the State Engineer (OSE) did not divert any water during the years of 2013-2015, applied for funding from the state beginning in 2015. The Water Trust Board awarded the mutual domestic $499,990 for “Plan, Design, Contruct” in 2015 and an additional $717,831 in 2016 for “Construction.” In addition, the New Mexico Environment Department Construction Programs Bureau gave the mutual domestic $150,000 in 2016. The mutual domestic has also applied for 2017 funding from the Water Trust Board to fund “6,745 LF of 8 and 6 inch waterlines, 740 LF of HDPE waterline installed by horizontal directional drilling for river and wash crossings, gate valves, fire hydrants, appurtances, and water meters.” So far this funding from state coffers comes to a whopping $1,367,821.
To hook up to a mutual domestic water system, well owners must dedicate their wells, which are limited to 1 acre-foot of water per year (afy). According to an El Llanito member of the mutual domestic, hook up fees range from about $1,000 to $1,500, and his family’s monthly water bill has risen from $10 to $30. There are approximately 15 families from his community who are members of the mutual domestic. He says he doesn’t drink the water, to be on the safe side, as it doesn’t yet run clear.
With only five lots on the river front properties, I wondered if the subdivision had also applied for any water rights transfers to increase its water supply. According to the subdivision application filed in Rio Arriba County, the owners are listed as the Ybarra Family LLC, which owns many restaurants in Texas, with George Pelletier listed as the director of the Rancho de Vallecitos Homeowners Association. The OSE has no water rights application on file under either of those names.
I contacted Pelletier to ask him about whether Rancho de Vallecitos had acquired any other water rights or was claiming that irrigation rights are attached to the property. He told me he had no interest in talking with a reporter and hung up the phone. I also e-mailed the president of the Ancones mutual domestic but he never responded. According to members of Water Watch, at the 2015 county hearing Pelletier said the new landowners inherited “Native” water rights, despite a lack of evidence that irrigation along the river has been continuous, which is required in New Mexico to maintain water rights.
Another issue that raised the concern of the Water Watchers was in the village of La Madera when landowner Caroline (CC) Culver sought to transfer acequia water rights to a well to expand her farm’s capacity. This is a recent, dangerous trend that has been tried in other areas of el norte. Back in 2013, I reported on Blackstone Ranch’s (located in Taos) application to transfer just under 12 acre feet per year of surface water rights from the Alamitos Acequia to a groundwater well to irrigate landscaping around the “main-house,” a small orchard, gardens, greenhouse, and “fire-prevention pond”—which translates to 6 afy of groundwater. Their reason was quite obvious: the transfer would insure the ranch irrigation water when there wasn’t enough water in the acequia due to drought conditions.
This, of course, sets a bad precedent: as surface water continues to dry up, more and more irrigators will want to pump groundwater instead. New Mexico is currently in litigation with Texas after farmers in southern New Mexico, dependent on Elephant Butte Irrigation District for irrigation, came up short and pumped groundwater to save their crops. In California, at the height of the recent drought, farmers started drilling so many wells that the ground started to subside.
In Culver’s case, she applied to the OSE to transfer 6 afy of water rights from La Zorra Acequia to a domestic well to expand her irrigation on 1.6 acres of land on her Owl Peak Farm (her property is located on SH 519 near the confluence of the Rio Vallecitos and Rio Tusas, which form the Rio Ojo Caliente). The domestic well she had already drilled came up artesian, producing 100 gallons a minute (the average household flow rate is about 5 to 12 gallons per minute). Christopher Thornburg, Gallinas Water Master for the OSE, approved the well plan operation she submitted, but Rolf Schmidt-Peterson, the New Mexico Interstate Commission (NMISC) Rio Grande Basin Manager, wrote a letter to the OSE regarding the transfer application to the well that stated: “In particular, one of the NMISC’s concerns with the transfer application is that its approval at the full requested diversion amount could result in an increase in Rio Grande Basin depletions above pre-Compact [Rio Grande Compact] levels. More specifically, we are concerned that the actual historically-available surface water supply may have been insufficient to meet the full permitted surface diversion right should it be transferred to groundwater.”
Acequia and Aquifer Water Watchers operates under the umbrella (or fiscal sponsorship) of Amigos Bravos in Taos, which also engages in water watching activities. The La Madera group sponsored two meetings to address Culver’s application to transfer the acequia water rights. Approximately 50 people attended the first, and about 30 people attended the second, which was held just before Culver’s initial water transfer hearing before the OSE was to occur. Water Watchers member Deborah Begel said, “That kind of attendance tells me that the community is very concerned about usage of groundwater for irrigating — no doubt because it’s a finite supply. And any transfer of water from an acequia diminishes its integrity, especially La Zorra ditch, which has so few parciantes.” In fact, if Culver were to give up her water rights and membership in the ditch, it would cease to exist. She and two other parciantes fulfill the New Mexico requirement that a ditch must have at least three members.
Begel, along with other members of the group, filed protests of Culver’s transfer application with the OSE. At the second community meeting on April 25, 2017, Water Watch member Ann Futch asked Culver why she wanted to transfer the water rights, noting rumors that Culver planned to bottle it. It seemed strange that the well had been drilled on the east side of the Tusas River, not very close to either the house or fields of Owl Peak Farm. According to Futch, Culver answered that she had planned to bottle it, but the next day, April 26, she withdrew the transfer application. I called the Water Rights Division of the OSE to see if anyone there had followed up on the status of the well. According to an official, the OSE issued Culver a permit for a domestic well, limited to 1 afy, but doesn’t require that she submit a meter reading with a 1 afy water limit.
Culver bought her first property in the La Madera area in 2006 and divides her time between New Mexico and a luxury estate in Dobbs Ferry, New York. She subsequently bought and developed several other large properties, one of which is on the former Dora Gallegos land watered by La Cueva Acequia on the south side of La Madera, where she also grows crops. She built a greenhouse and two-story commercial-size building that remains empty.
In 2014 she also bought the 120-acre property known as Statute Springs located on the llano above La Madera. On her blog it is described as a “sister property to Owl Peak Farm.” The property, which cannot be seen by other residents of the village, has a swimming pool fed by hot springs. According to the blog, Culver has dug and filled a pond and installed an irrigation system to grow buckwheat, barley, peas, and native grasses. There is a natural spring on the property with a flow rate of 30 gallons per minute.
In addition to her agricultural enterprises, Culver runs another business through Owl Peak Farm called the “/Shed,” which sponsors gourmet dinners at various locations described on the website this way: “/ Shed is a small scale nomadic, wild plant based dinner project celebrating nature and the fleeting of time here in Northern New Mexico. An exploration of the land we inhabit and the roots of growing up in the high desert. Carrying on the tradition of bringing people together through food.” The December 2017 dinners scheduled in La Madera were all sold out at $95 per person. The address given is that of the Owl Peek Farm on SH 519. A concerned neighbor alerted the county to the /Shed business and a code enforcement officer visited La Madera in April of 2017 but was unable to locate Culver. In November the officer called Culver and left a message inquiring about the business, but when I spoke with her in December she hadn’t received a reply. According to the county, there is no business application on file for the /Shed.
Neighbors have also questioned whether Culver has developed new wells on the Gallegos property, although she’s a member of the La Madera Mutual Domestic. That membership usually requires an owner to give up well rights. The OSE well filings on Culver did not include listings for the Gallegos property. I contacted Culver to ask her what her plans are for the new building but she never responded.
People in the La Madera area support Owl Peak Farm’s contribution to growing food, including some interesting new varieties, but they want Culver and other newcomers to play by the rules and maintain the underground aquifer for current and future generations of residents. The fact that neither Culver nor Pelletier would speak to me to answer questions about their water use now and their plans for the future is troubling. It doesn’t bode well for future transparency. And when it comes to both the quantity and the potability of future water supplies, decisions about how individuals and developers tap and use water will remain issues of concern.