Guardians of Taos Water Protest Ends

Commentary By KAY MATTHEWS

The Guardians of Taos Water’s (GOT) protest of the Abeyta Settlement’s deep water well on Taos Mesa was just about as convoluted as the Abeyta Settlement itself. Buck Johnston, a Navajo member of GOT, climbed the drill rig on Thursday evening to occupy it for four days, even though the group claimed it wasn’t opposed to that well in particular. The State Police initially tried to wrestle him down, then pulled down some of his gear, and eventually left him alone until he descended on Sunday morning when he was arrested and taken to jail. A post on the GOT Facebook page said his family and a Taos Pueblo medicine man conducted a ceremony before he was taken to jail. I wish him well and that the charges are dropped. To my knowledge, the Taos Pueblo Council, a party to the settlement, has not released a statement regarding the action.

Before I take a closer look at the GOT protest, here’s a short summary of what the Abeyta Settlement entails:

  • Taos Pueblo, which has first priority water rights in the Taos Valley, is entitled to its Historically Irrigated Acreage Right of 5,712 acres (22,508.35 acre feet per year) but shall “forbear” disruption of non-Indian irrigators in the Taos Valley by limiting its irrigation to 2, 322.45 afy of recently irrigated land.
  • San Juan/Chama water rights of 2,900 afy (later reduced by 300 feet for the Aamodt Settlement in the Pojoaque Valley), were allocated to Taos Pueblo (2,400 afy) the Town of Taos (500 afy) and El Prado Water and Sanitation District (50 afy).
  • El Prado Water and Sanitation District would limit the water it had been pumping from its three existing wells near Taos Pueblo’s Buffalo Pasture, allegedly impacting the pasture’s aquifer, and drill two new deep wells (1,000 feet) tapping into the Rio Grande along U.S. 64.
  • A mitigation well system would be used to offset any surface water depletions resulting from any future groundwater diversions and consumptions, i.e., future development in the Town of Taos, the pueblo, the mutual domestic water associations, and El Prado Water and Sanitation District. These 1,000 foot wells would be located in each stream system in the valley and operated by an acequia association or domestic well association. A special kind of well called an Aquifer Storage and Recovery Well (ASR) was designated for Arroyo Seco, where water would be diverted from the Rio Lucero in the winter, stored in the ASR well until spring, then pumped from the well and transported via pipeline to the acequia (included in the settlement to compensate the ditch for a “taking” from the Rio Lucero by Taos Pueblo in 1935).

The conversations I’ve had with members of Guardians of Taos Water and their Facebook page take me back to the days of deep ecology when the environmentalists of the 1990s were fighting with the community based foresters over access to public lands. The biocentric language of that environmentalism sin gente is all over the Facebook pages of the GOT: Protect the Earth, the water, the fire, the air, speak for those who have no voice, the trees, the animals . . .

Yet what they are demanding is a very human centric demand that a “complete and comprehensive programmatic environmental impact (EIS) study to be conducted before any more implementation of the Abeyta Settlement takes place.” The group sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency tasked with implementation of the settlement, for all documents related to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance.

As it stands now, individual projects, such as the supply and mitigation wells, will be covered by either Categorical Exclusions or Environmental Assessments, NEPA categories less rigorous than an EIS.

The irony of all this is that back in the nineties, it was the community foresters who were hanging the environmentalists in effigy, protesting in front of the Forest Service offices, and marching down the streets while the environmentalists were using NEPA to file lawsuit after lawsuit against the community loggers and the Forest Service to shut down the forests. The community activists had given up on the NEPA process when it became obvious that federal laws were stacked against the people, not a system designed to work in our favor.

What La Jicarita and so many others who have been critical of the Abeyta Settlement have tried to do, like our compadres back in the 90s, is make a political analysis of its ramifications, which requires the language of capitalism, not deep ecology. It begins with the state Water Code, which initiated the change in the concept of water as community property tied to the land to its privatization under the concept of prior appropriation, or “first in time, first in line,” setting up the system of senior and junior water rights and water adjudications under the auspices of the Office of the State Engineer. The state is currently bogged down in numerous adjudications that drag on for years burdening the state bureaucracy, the parties involved, and lining the pockets of the lawyers. Neoliberal forces work to ensure that within these adjudications water resources will be dedicated to what is determined its “highest and best use,” i.e., movement out of its area of origin to facilitate growth and development or technological fixes that negate traditional use.

Any political analysis must also address the political transactions involved in the promulgation of the settlement, of which there have been many. As I’ve reported previously in La Jicarita, the parties to the settlement banded together to oppose the public welfare component of the Taos Regional Water Plan, which would have provided oversight of the buying and selling of water rights within or from Taos County, necessary for the implementation of the settlement: some of these water rights were from areas outside the valley and the purview of the adjudication. (The newly appointed State Engineer, John D’Antonio, who was the previous State Engineer during this period, was also responsible for the rejection of the public welfare component of the plan.) Palemon Martinez, who represented the Taos Valley Acequia Association (TVAA) in the settlement negotiations, was also a commissioner on the Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y del Arroyo Seco, where the ASR wells are designated. He also negotiated the transfer of the necessary water rights from a Questa acequia to his acequia for the wells. After the parciantes on the acequia became aware of these details, they voted him off the commission and also voted to decline the ASR wells. The TVAA is currently plagued by turmoil and divisiveness due to this failure of leadership.

John Painter of El Prado Water and Sanitation District has been involved in water brokering for many years. As far back as the mid 1990s he helped negotiate the proposed water transfer to Las Sierras, a huge resort and development in the El Prado area that was proposed by developers and fought by the community. The criteria of public welfare was raised by the State Engineer at the time, who denied the transfer based on the fact that the developers failed to present the exact figures on how they were going to meet the resort’s water needs. Painter is also an employee of the Cerro San Cristobal Ranch, whose owner Alfred Keller has long been involved in water markets and owned some of the water rights El Prado purchased for the Abeyta. In an interview on KCEI Cultural Energy Painter defended El Prado’s potential sale of water rights to the proposed Tarleton Ranch in Upper Colonias as a way to prevent the potential of individual homeowner wells instead: we sell water, we don’t mind to whom.

What many of us do have in common GOT members is a questioning of the environmental impacts of comingling the waters of the mitigation wells with the surface stream and acequia waters; treatment of water from these 1,000 foot wells to meet state standards will be costly. The Upper Rio Hondo Mutual Domestic has refused to be the administrator for its mitigation well. I believe another acequia has opted out (other operators will have to be assigned) and several others are negotiating the location of the wells. If the Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y del Arroyo Seco remains firm on its commitment against the ASR wells it will lose the water transfer from the Questa acequia.

Many of the GOT members have done their homework and read the Abeyta Settlement. Buck Johnston has. But what their actions over the past few days will have gained them I don’t know. Risking an arrest and jail for the demand of an EIS, which has never been the guarantee of anything is a costly move. I know their concerns extend beyond the deep aquifer drilling to the proposed Tarelton Ranch development and other issues of equality and sustainability. Painter ended his Cultural Energy interview by saying, “The Abeyta is done!”  I do believe he’s wrong.


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