Abeyta pact draws critics as water transfers take shape
By J.R. Logan
The Taos News, July 21, 2011
one of the first steps in the implementation of the $66 million Abeyta
water settlement, El Prado Water and Sanitation District is asking for
more than 22 times its existing water rights.
The El Prado Water
and Sanitation District has asked the Office of the State Engineer to
approve an assortment of ground and surface water transfers that would
take the domestic water supplier’s allowable well production from 25
acre-feet per year (about 8.3 million gallons) to 575 acrefeet per
year (more than 187 million gallons).
District officials say the
boost would bring the district in line with its actual consumer usage
and ensure sustainable growth 40 years into the future.
some wonder if moving vast amounts of water around Taos County is
logical, or even necessary. There are also worries that two wells
proposed by El Prado Water and Sanitation District — with a deeper
reach and far greater production allowances — could prove dangerous to
the region’s overall water supply.
The shuffling of water rights
is directly tied to the Abeyta Settlement — a major water rights
compromise that was meant to end years of water disputes in the Taos
Valley. For nearly two decades, Taos Pueblo and the Taos Valley Acequia
Association (and later other stakeholders including the state and town
of Taos) worked on a deal to divvy up water rights to satisfy everyone.
parties agreed to a draft settlement in 2006 but needed the federal
government to approve $66 million in funds to put the plan into action.
Congress passed legislation that included the Abeyta in November 2010,
and President Barack Obama signed the agreement — also known as the
Taos Pueblo Indian Water Rights Act — into law days later.
recent applications from El Prado Water and Sanitation District are the
some of the first Abeyta-related actions to move forward.
Prado district currently serves around 1,000 customers with its 25
acre-feet allocation. But John Painter of El Prado Water and Sanitation
District told The Taos News
Tuesday (July 19) that the
district has been pumping between 100 and 130 acre-feet a year to meet
the demand of its customers — far more than its allotted amount.
a result, El Prado Water and Sanitation District owes the state a debt
of about 800 acre-feet of water. To pay off that debt, and to have
enough water for future growth, the district says it needs more water
rights. But water that’s pumped out of the ground must be “offset” by
surface and ground water already in use elsewhere. Offsets are intended
to balance the total amount of allocated water so that the watershed
remains whole. Such changes must be approved by the state engineer.
a part of its plan under the Abeyta, El Prado Water and Sanitation
District wants to initially shuffle a total of 284 acre-feet of ground
water rights on the Rio Grande in northern Taos County and add them to
the pumping schedule in El Prado. El Prado Water and Sanitation
District has also worked out arrangements with property owners to buy
about 70 acre-feet of surface water on the Rio Lucero, Rio Hondo,
Arroyo Seco and Rio Pueblo de Taos. The water rights will be “retired”
so that a corresponding amount of ground water can be pumped from El
Prado’s wells downstream.
Painter was among those who sold private surface water rights to the district, cashing in 13.6 acre-feet on the Rio Lucero.
Taos News has asked to see actual prices paid by El Prado Water and
Sanitation District to landowners for water rights, but documents
showing purchase amounts were not made available by press time.
Painter said the district paid around $7,500 an acre-foot for surface
In total, the surface offsets and groundwater
swaps would allow El Prado Water and Sanitation District to pump about
350 acre-feet of groundwater into its system every year — well short
of the 575 allocation it is asking for.
Painter said El Prado
would continue to look for offsets to match its pumping allocation. He
insisted that the district would not exercise the full extent of that
allocation until it had acquired enough offsets to balance that kind of
usage. Painter said consolidation of these rights would benefit Taos
County in the long run. “The only way you can keep water from going
south is if you own it,” he said.
‘Peace in the valley’
Gilbert Suazo of Taos Pueblo testified to a Senate Committee about the
Abeyta Settlement in 2008, he told legislators that the settlement
would finally bring “peace in the valley.” But now that the terms of
the deal are being put into motion, that peace is already in jeopardy.
like Kay Matthews of El Valle, claim that the Abeyta Settlement only
satisfies those who had a seat at the bargaining table and disregards
the needs of the community at large.
“They (the Abeyta
stakeholders) did all this hard work and they came up with what they
say was the best deal for the parties to this settlement, and so any
attempt by anybody else to look over their shoulder, or have a say-so,
or protest what they’re doing, is just forbidden,” Matthews told The
Friday (July 15) Matthews is the chairperson of a
water advisory board appointed by the Taos County Commissioners. The
nine-member committee created last year is charged with reviewing all
proposed water transfers in the county and offering advice to the Taos
County Commission on the effects of those transfers.
Mart'nez, president of the Taos Valley Acequia Association, publicly
voiced his opposition to the creation of the advisory board, arguing
that it might undo what had been accomplished by the Abeyta parties.
Painter with El Prado Water and Sanitation District is also wary of the
board, contending that it will make it difficult for the legitimate
transfer of water.
Matthews and other members of the Public
Advisory Board worry that hydrologic juggling could have unforeseen
consequences on the stability of the region’s water resources. And
because the deal was fleshed out in private, there are concerns that
stakeholders promised one another water rights that the watershed
couldn’t sustain. Matthews wonders if there is enough science to back
up these kinds of appropriations. “They don’t know what’s going to
happen,” Matthews said.
Painter, of El Prado Water and
Sanitation District, said the terms of the settlement were well thought
out and that the deal would serve as a “blueprint” for future water
A small chorus of opposition in rural Taos County isn’t
the only hitch the in the Abeyta implementation. Meetings are ongoing
between Abeyta parties and representatives of the U.S. Department of
Justice and the U.S. Department of the Interior to mold the settlement
to fit the legislation passed by Congress. Painter said there are no
fundamental changes to the deal, but he said there has been “a
considerable amount of argument and discussion” over some of the
details. The town of Taos also met in closed session last week to
discuss “pending litigation” regarding the Abeyta implementation.
‘A vast unknown’
objections of Matthews and others are rooted in worries that no one
knows how new wells pumping millions of gallons from aquifers will
impact the region as a whole. But the Abeyta parties, backed by a study
conducted by the Office of the State Engineer, argue that these
allocations are based on reliable information.
“In the opinion
of the (Office of the State Engineer), the Taos Area Calibrated
Groundwater model does give enough data to allow us to implement the
Abeyta Settlement safely,” wrote Peggy Barroll, a hydrologist with the
state engineer, in an email to The Taos News .
co-authored the 2006 groundwater model that was commissioned by the
Abeyta parties for the settlement. Barroll said in her email that the
model was developed using “extensive new hydraulic data,” which tells
scientists whether new pumping will affect other water resources.
did allow that all hydrological models have “some degree of
uncertainty” and she said the Office of the State Engineer would keep
an eye on groundwater data and “revise the model if necessary.”
notion of uncertainty was echoed by Peggy Johnson, a hydrologist with
the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico
Tech. Johnson and her husband, geologist Paul Bauers, have done
extensive studies on small pieces of the Taos region. The pair was
recently commissioned by Taos County to map the Miranda Canyon area.
According to Johnson, the realm beneath the Taos Valley — fractured by
ubiquitous faults and riddled with complex geology — is not an easy
place to understand.
“The subsurface is a vast unknown,” Johnson
told The Taos News . “What we know about it is based on about a dozen
holes placed around the valley over a huge area.”
the team that put together the 2006 model “did the best they could at
the time,” but she wouldn’t go so far as to call the report
She bemoaned a general lack of data in the Taos area and said few are will to share their information with others.
Johnson said the proposed locations of El Prado Water and Sanitation
District’s two new wells — off U.S. 64 between the old blinking light
intersection and Gorge Bridge — appear to be logical. “I think that
it’s a relatively good place if you have to make a decision right now
and put a well in,” Johnson said. “But can you predict all the
consequences? You never can. It’s all a grand science project.”