Acequias de la Sierra: Picuris Pueblo Wants the Water Back

By KAY MATTHEWS

During an amazing rainstorm on October 4, I went on a tour with Picuris Pueblo Governor Craig Quanchello and other tribal members to the Acequias de la Sierra diversions that move water transmountain from the Jicarita watershed (Rio Grande basin) to the Mora Valley (Arkansas River basin). Even though it’s late in the irrigation season, a significant amount of water flows through these diversions to the villages of Cleveland, Holman, and Chacon on the east side of Jicarita Peak.

Three diversions carry water across the divide: the Rito Alamitos to Cleveland, constructed some time between 1819 and 1835; the Rito la Presa to Chacon around 1865; and the Rito Angostura (La Sierra Ditch) to Holman, constructed between 1879 and 1882.

Before I describe the geography and hydrology of these diversions, a history of how this water was transferred from one watershed to another is in order. I give a brief history of the diversions in my book, ¡No Se Vende! Water as a Right of the Commons, but for a detailed account you can read historian Malcolm Ebright’s article in the New Mexico Historical Review, “Making Water Run Uphill: The Mora Acequias de la Sierra vs. Picuris Pueblo; A Tale of Two Watersheds and the Mora Land Grant.”

The Mora Valley was first colonized in the early part of the 19th century by a group of Indo-Hispano families who had formerly resided within the Pueblo of Picuris grant on the west side of the Jicarita watershed. In need of agricultural land to feed a growing population, a group of settlers led by the soldier Antonio Olguín made the journey over the mountain in 1816 into the remote but fertile valley. In 1818, 76 families petitioned the church to establish an independent parish in San Antonio de lo de Mora.

However, while the land in the valley was extremely fertile, the waters of the Mora River proved insufficient to meet the agricultural and domestic needs of the colony. Historian Anselmo F. Arellano, in a 1985 article “Acequias de la Sierra and Early Agriculture in the Mora Valley,” claims that Olguín “approached the Picuris Indians and successfully requested permission to take some pueblo water from the high mountain valleys and the crest of the Jicarilla [Jicarita] Mountain.”

 There are differing opinions as to whether the Pueblo actually gave Olguín permission for this first diversion. In Malcolm Ebright’s article he begins this statement with a tentative “It seems” . . . “this first diversion was a water sharing agreement with Picuris Pueblo, which allowed Olguín and the Mora settlers to construct the diversion.” In the same article he states that during the 1800s the Pueblo filed numerous protests of the takeover of its land and water by Spanish settlers, including the Santa Barbara and Embudo land grants. There doesn’t appear to be substantive documentation to prove the Pueblo gave permission for the first diversion, but it’s not in the purview of this article to make any definitive assessment.

Before the settlers in the Mora Valley could petition for a land grant, many were forced out of the area under Comanche and Pawnee attacks. After they returned, around 1834, the second and third diversions were constructed to meet the needs of the growing community (the Mora Land Grant was established in 1835). When the construction of the third, Holman diversion, began in 1879, there were approximately 8,000 people in the Mora Valley. Indian Agent Benjamin Thomas was instrumental in advocating for an injunction that the Mora parciantes cease irrigating from the three diversions, claiming that the flow of the Rio Pueblo had been diminished, depriving Picuris of the “natural flow of the river.” Although the Pueblo objected to all three diversions, it did not enjoin the first, Rito Alamitos, to Cleveland.

Agent Thomas enlisted U.S. Attorney Sidney M. Barnes to draft and file a lawsuit for Picuris Governor Juan Pando seeking a perpetual injunction to stop the Holman (Rito Angostura) diversion, naming twenty-three residents of the community (then named Agua Negra) as defendants. The suit noted that the previous two diversions had also been protested, but that the Pueblo’s “objections were wholly disregarded.”

Without a settlement, and because of the Pueblo’s inability to find lawyers to continue the lawsuit, it languished until 1885, when the infamous Thomas Catron, godfather of New Mexico’s usurious land speculators who represented the Holman defendants, successfully sought dismissal of the lawsuit “for want of prosecution.” By this time, Catron had acquired title to the northern part of the Mora Land Grant common lands, which he subsequently sold to outside investors.

As drought and the climate crisis have contextualized discussions about water, the Pueblo has again become increasingly concerned about the Acequias de la Sierra. Under various governors, site visits have been made (see Aug/Sept 2011 La Jicarita News) to assess the situation and to meet with the commissioners and mayordomos from the Mora Valley who direct the waters into their acequias. Meetings were held in 2014 with Picuris Governor Richard Mermejo and parciantes from both sides of the mountain, and a steering committee was designated, but only the officers of the Embudo Valley Regional Acequia Association showed up for two subsequent meetings.

At the most recent meeting on October 4, Dixon acequia commissioner Robert Templeton gave presentations at the Pueblo and at the site visits to the Holman and Cleveland diversions off Forest Road 161 near Holman Hill. Templeton told the group that more than one-half million acre feet of the Rio Pueblo has been diverted to the Mora Valley over the life of the three diversions (183 years). This is based on actual gauge measurements on the Holman and Chacon diversions, while the Cleveland gauge, that was installed only two years ago, is calculated as being equal to or slightly less that the Holman diversion. Individual diversion amounts per year are: Holman, 1,592 afy; Chacon, 244 afy; and Cleveland, 1,592 afy if equal to Holman, or 795 afy if half of Holman’s diversion.

Dixon acequia commissioner Robert Templeton, on the left; Picuris Governor Craig Quanchello, on the right

There are two diversions that direct the Rito Angostura from its headwaters at Serpent Lake, 10,800 feet in elevation, to Holman. This is the ditch you cross when you climb Forest Trail 19 to Serpent Lake. During natural flows, this ditch diverts all the water from the Rito Angostura. At the location on Forest Road 161 of the Rito Angostura desague to the Rito Alamitos we observed the berm that directs the water under the road through a large culvert toward the Rito Alamitos diversion, about a half-mile walk into the forest from the road. Here, we saw the concrete headgate on the Rito Alamitos that was built in 2007 with capital outlay money from the state legislature. Somehow the Texas branch of Trout unlimited got involved in the project and added a fish barrier for native trout (that never worked). In July of 2010 floodwaters blocked the headgate with debris and washed away the embankment. The Cañoncito y Encinal Acequias (Cleveland) commissioners received FEMA funding to rebuild the headgate. The headgate was actually rebuilt again in late 2017 or early 2018. In the photo below you can see the multiple sandbags, which were placed on the diversion just this year, that direct all of the water from the Alamitos to the acequias. One of the people on the tour remarked, “They’re not really ditches anymore, they’re rivers.” Another berm, just downhill where the Rito Angostura ditch crosses the Rito Alamitos, prevents any water from flowing to the Rio Pueblo. The Rito Alamitos diversion also takes the entire river except during run-off and flash flood events. The two diversions then continue downhill to Vigil Canyon to Holman and Agua Fria Creek to Cleveland.

Angostura diversion berm
Sandbags along the Rito Alamitos

We didn’t visit the Chacon diversion this time, but this diversion, in La Junta Canyon, is fed via two glacial basins, the Cerro Vista and the Cerro Olla, which converge just above the diversion and feed, via a waterfall visible from State Highway 518 in the Mora Valley, into the Acequia La Joya and Rito Griego in Chacon.

So what does this all mean in terms of water sharing between the two basins? The calculations Templeton has done show that the three diversions take the majority of the water from the most important, high altitude sources in the Rio Pueblo drainage and combined, divert as much as 15 to 20 percent of the water that would normally flow to the Rio Pueblo Stream Flow gauge at the beginning of the irrigated acreage at the southeast end of the Picuris/Vadito/Placita valley. The diversions are capable of taking a significant portion of the spring run-off water and virtually all of the post-spring-run-off water from the heart of the Rio Pueblo drainage.

Catchment basins of each of the three diversions. Courtesy of Robert Templeton

The Pueblo has requested information from the Forest Service regarding permits and oversight of the three diversions. Governor Quanchello said he has discussed the issue with all of the 22 pueblo governors of the All Indian Pueblo Council. He also said that he had met with Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA), and told her that the Pueblo wants the water back. On the Pueblo tour to the diversions in 2011, Garcia and other members of the board of the NMAA, most of whom are from the Mora Valley, were in attendance when Pueblo Governor Gerald Nailor told the group the Pueblo wanted “an equal playing field” so that that an agreed amount of water could be shared between the two basins. No consensus was reached at the subsequent meetings in 2014.

I reached out to Paula Garcia for comment. She sent me a copy of the letter she wrote to Governor Quanchello after her meeting with him last summer to address concerns about water shortages at the Pueblo: she hasn’t received a reply.

“I offered to assist with facilitation between his office and acequia leadership and that offer is still open. As the Executive Director of the NMAA, I made it clear that I was not speaking on behalf of the Mora Valley acequias. I expressed that I believed the most appropriate role would be to facilitate communication since I am accountable to acequias on both sides of the mountain. In the succeeding months, I reached out to the regional acequia association in the Mora Valley, La Asociacion de las Acequias del Valle de Mora. A task force of acequias that use the transmountain diversions was formed. My recommendation to them was to develop a relationship with Pueblo leadership and establish an open line of communication. I believe that regardless of whether the Pueblo files a legal claim with the courts or decides to proceed a more informal route, a pathway for communications is most important.”

La Jicarita will continue to follow this issue to see how the Pueblo decides to proceed.

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