It took decades to decide and Aamodt settlement worries acequia communities

An acequia along the Las Trampas in northern New Mexico is suspended on a trestle. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

From The Sante Fe New Mexican (Tripp Stelnicki):

A federal court entered a final decree in the Aamodt settlement to much fanfare earlier this summer, ending more than half a century of litigation and negotiation in one of the longest-running water fights in the country. But even with the decree, a flood of questions lingers over the implementation of the settlement, and the Office of the State Engineer’s proposed rules have touched off particular concern in the centuries-old acequia communities, where there is anxiety about being left high and dry in a post-Aamodt environment.

The communities have operated communal river-diverted irrigation systems in a largely informal and entirely internal fashion for centuries. Many say their localized, community-oriented nature is what makes them special. Some call the acequias, with roots in Spanish colonialism, the oldest form of democracy on American soil.

Now the organizations are racing to interpret what the proposed new regulations will compel them to do, preparing for a public hearing this week that amounts to their last best chance to voice concerns and suggest alterations to the Office of the State Engineer before the rules are promulgated by Sept. 15.

In recent weeks, there have been a few informational meetings for those affected, but members of acequia communities say the rules have come upon them too quickly and, until recent weeks, without sufficient input from the hundreds of parciantes, or irrigators, in the Nambé-Pojoaque-Tesuque water district.

“They had the pueblos, the state, the county — everyone. Everyone came before the acequias. We came last,” said Pablo Gonzales, president of the Acequia de los Trujillos. “And unless we go back to fight all this in court again, we’re going to end up being screwed.”

In a statement, the engineer’s office said acequia leaders and irrigators have been invited to participate in “the pending rulemaking process.”

“Like other affected water right owners, they have the opportunity to comment on the proposed rules through the public hearing process,” the statement read, adding that all public comments will be considered before the rules are finalized.

‘A big burden’

The rules concern the distribution and administration of the water supply and water rights in the Nambé-Pojoaque-Tesuque basin. They implement the terms and conditions of the Aamodt settlement agreement and final decree.

One significant change codified in the rules, to be enforced by a water master or masters, is the compilation and submission of an annual report about lands to be irrigated, or TBI, from each acequia.

By March 1 of each year, according to the proposed rules, the mayordomo, or ditch boss, of each acequia must provide to the water master a written report about the acreage under the ditch to be irrigated; maps will accompany these TBI letters. The water master or masters in the engineer’s office will then determine the maximum diversion rate for each ditch in the system.

But obtaining the information and ensuring its accuracy “places a big burden on the mayordomos,” said Edward Romero, mayordomo of Acequia de Las Jollas for more than 30 years, referring to the TBIs.

Mayordomos and commissioners, many if not all of them volunteers, have always been responsible for maintenance and repairs in each ditch, the division of water, watering schedule and more. But these time-consuming tasks have never before been regulated with meticulous scrutiny or from the outside, Romero said…

Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, said the nonprofit has been pushing for irrigators to make their concerns about the proposals heard at this week’s hearing. All comments will be considered before a final draft is promulgated…

Vague rules

Another concern for acequias in the proposed rules is protection against priority enforcement by the pueblos. A priority call is the rarely used mechanism, reserved for times of scarcity, in which junior water rights are curtailed so more senior water rights can be met. It “should be a measure of last resort,” according to the state engineer’s website.

Romero, the nonprofit attorney, said a section of the settlement protects parciantes against priority calls by those with more senior water rights, whether pueblos or other acequias — but not if the water right “is not beneficially used for more than five consecutive years,” according to the rules…

How beneficial use will be determined was a cause for concern at the Nambé gathering. Water banking is not addressed in either the settlement or rules, Romero said, and it is unclear as yet whether it will qualify for protection against losing priority.

The need for more documentation of acequia water use than has been compiled in the past, then, becomes ever more important under the proposed rules, Romero said.

“We kind of view all of these provisions as adding more pressure in general to acequias,” Garcia said. “In particular to those individuals who serve as mayordomos, commissioners. They will have to step up their game.”

The state engineer’s rules come out of the terms of the Aamodt settlement, an agreement reached between the United States government, the state, Santa Fe County, the city of Santa Fe and four Northern pueblos — Nambé, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso and Tesuque. The settlement established priority water rights for the pueblos, and all water rights in the Pojoaque Basin north of Santa Fe were adjudicated.

But Aamodt developments were hardly finished with the entrance of the final decree in July.

First, the rules governing the administration of water rights in the basin will be finalized.

Hurdles remain, namely the construction of a multimillion-dollar regional water system that is part of the settlement, the funding of which hinges on both state appropriations and the resolution to roadway disputes between pueblos and Santa Fe County. And domestic well users have expressed concerns about the proposed rules, as well. Ongoing road disputes over rights-of-way between the county and some pueblos have also clouded the settlement proceedings.

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