A few people from Picuris Pueblo drove up to Carson National Forest in late October. They parked their cars on a dirt road that runs into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They walked a short distance east to Alamitos Creek about 16 miles from the pueblos border. Craig Quanchello (pueblos governor), led them through a grove full of conifers, aspens, and aspens on Jicarita Peak’s eastern slope. Quanchello, his companions, and other tribal administration members were aware of rumors, but they weren’t prepared for what they saw.
If nature had its way Alamitos Creek could merge with Rio Pueblo which flows through Picuris Pueblo. However, a diversion at 9,800 feet above the sea level diverts the stream’s water into a ditch and crosses a mountain pass. The creek runs into the Mora Valley, near Cleveland. Here livestock graze in picturesque pastures, large piles full of firewood are piled beside homes, and there is a strong sense of place that is connected to its past. There, the water from Alamitos is absorbed into fields and gardens.
In the past 12 years, Cleveland irrigators have transformed the diversion system from a set leaky wooden boards to a wall made of stacked sandbags into an embankment filled with large rocks. The cement had been poured over the berm by the end September, just a month before Picuris arrived. There was no opening in the direction to the Rio Pueblo, not even a gate. The creek bed that runs to river was dry, even though water from the Alamitos ran down the ditch towards Cleveland.
A palpable outrage rose within the group when they saw the cement work. It was an insult to the tribe. One more violation of their sacred land. One more unilateral move by irrigators for permanent control over water. The pueblo leadership claims that 200 years of water has been stolen from them.
Quanchello stated that it was time to take matters into our own hands and destroy the diversion using heavy machinery and redirect the Alamitos into their natural channel. Mora can fight if she wants.
It’s going to get dirty,” he said soberly. Someone is going to be hurt.
A few weeks later on or just before November 13, the cemented bed was smashed open. A few hundred yards away, a large mound of dirt, rocks, and other materials had been piled up in front of the headgate. This was to divert water to Holman, another community in the Mora valley. Vandalism is a potentially illegal act. No one has claimed responsibility. John Romero (water rights division director at the Office of the State Engineer, which manages New Mexico’s waters), said that everyone knows who is behind the vandalism. I won’t speculate.
There are three divertissements that take water from Rio Pueblo and deliver it to Mora Valley. They all predate New Mexico statehood, and Picuris Pueblos opposition. The one on Alamitos is responsible for two acequias or irrigation ditches in Cleveland. It was built around 1820, decades before the United States acquired the area from Mexico. The second diversion, built in 1865, moves water over a steep divide to the Rito la Presa and into two acequias located in the small hamlet Chacon. The third, which became operational 1882, captures Rito Angostura then sends it back to Holman. They irrigate approximately 1,900 acres of the agriculturally rich Mora Valley, which serves 143 parciantes.
Picuris wants all three of the diversions to be removed and the streams to return to their natural flow. This could result in significantly higher flows to the pueblo where approximately 250 of the 385 tribal members live on land their ancestors called home for the past millennium. However, this could have a significant impact on the Mora Valley residents who have depended on these waters for generations to grow hay.
Eufracio Vigil, aged 79, stated that without the supplemental water, we wouldn’t make it. His family has been in Chacon since four generations and he has personally helped to maintain the local Acequias ever since the 1950s.
The dispute over the diversions is emblematic not only of simmering water disputes in drought-stricken America West but also wider discussions about righting historical wrongs against Indigenous peoples. It is difficult for all parties to reach a settlement because of the complexity and vagueness of water laws regarding pueblos. Acequias, natural streams, and other aspects. Some irrigators and the pueblo have rejected the possibility of a sharing agreement in which Mora would get less water, but Picuris would get all.
The New Mexico high desert valleys have a self-evident truth: El agua Es Vidawater is water. Water flows and things grow. Green ribbons trace the paths of streams and rivers. These fertile floodplains are often framed with dry, rocky hills and mesas, which are often home to cacti, juniper, and pion trees.
Spanish colonists set up a system in New Mexico for gravity-fed Acequias, which was used to grow food and fodder. It all started in the late 16th Century. According to the New Mexico Acequia Association, there are approximately 700 acequias in New Mexico. They are crucial to the survival of orchards and fields, as well as to centuries-old local traditions that contribute to the very soul of a community. New Mexico is known for its spring limpia, which is the annual cleaning of ditches; the opening of headgates; the discussions about water-sharing arrangements during drought; and the sight of water flowing like capillaries around towns, around farm plots, or down a flume made from tree trunks.
Each acequia usually operates within a single hydrological system: water is channeled along a river to the fields adjacent it. All water remains within the same hydrological systems. But the three divertions at the heart the dispute between Picuris irrigators are in the Mora valley are different. The irrigators seize water that is part of Rio Pueblo and move it to the Mora River Basin. Picuris finds this to be both ecologically and spiritually egregious.
Quanchello stated at Alamitos Creek that they were “killing the land and the environment”. He made a broad gesture to show the entire landscape: This is our home. It is all important to us, he said. Because they need water, our traditional medicines, spiritual plants and herbs are being depleted. This stuff can’t be replaced.
Picuris Tribal interpreter Cecilia Shields, who is one of the group at Quanchello, stated that water is essential for spirituality. These waters, which flow around Serpent Lake are especially sacred. She explained that it is a place of prayer, pilgrimage for our people, and our center place. The entire Jicarita Peak and all that it holds are sacred. To remove anything from it, as the diversions do, is to destroy the balance. It’s a desecration that the Mora people are taking water. It’s heartbreaking.
Shields stated that there are no issues with anyone in our watershed. We do share with them, but we won’t allow users to take the water where it wouldn’t naturally go.
Long battles, harsh betrayals
Picuris lodged protests against the divertissements to Chacon and Cleveland as early as the late 1870s. They were summarily ignored. The pueblo filed a lawsuit in the district court after the Holman ditch was made operational in 1882.
Picuris’ attorney, who was assigned by the Department of Justice to represent Picuris in this suit, never showed up to court. This is a betrayal that still stings. Picuris suffered a terrible loss, Malcolm Ebright, a lawyer with experience working with acequias as well as pueblos, stated in a 2017 article published by the New Mexico Historical Review. It was eventually dismissed in 1885 because it was impossible to find anyone willing and able to take their case.
The lawsuit records add clarity and confusion to the history about the diversions. Picuris objections to the three ditches and the damage they were causing to the pueblo were clearly stated in the case. However, the remedy they sought was an injunction against Holman. The Indian agent also stated that Antonio Olgun, the founder of Cleveland, was allowed. [by Picuris]He was the one who arranged the first diversion. Today, Cleveland irrigation workers take these words as proof that they didn’t steal the water. Ebright, a well-known author of books on pueblo history tends to agree with this position. In an interview, he stated that there was no protest at the time it was built.
Picuris strongly rejects this conclusion, pointing to the fact that Thomas’ statement is not supported by historical records. Quanchello claimed that there is no evidence that we have given them water. We wouldn’t have granted them permission to use the entire stream, even if we did. According to our elders, their elders had said that water was something that our people always wanted back.
“It is difficult to convince non-Indians”
Picuris have no easy way forward. Picuris cannot present their claims in court today without filing for an adjudication. This will determine how much water they legally have. This can be a lengthy and costly process that can take many years to resolve. Richard Hughes, a lawyer and water rights expert who has represented many pueblos, stated that most adjudication cases last longer than the judges and lawyers involved. He is currently working with cases that were filed in the 1960s.
Complex cases such as this one require a lot of expertise, from the historical to hydrological. Hughes stated that it can be very costly. He also noted that voluntary water-sharing arrangements aren’t easy to reach. If there are no legal proceedings pending, it is difficult to convince non Indians that you have any leverage. It’s hard to convince people who have been drinking this water for over 100 years to give up some of their rights.
There are no official statistics that can accurately show how much water is being diverted to the Mora River from the Rio Pueblo. The Embudo Valley Regional Acequia Association used to be headed by a former president. He compared the flows from the Rio Pueblo to the flows into the diversions.
Robert Templeton concluded that 15 to 20 percent of the water that should have been going into Rio Pueblo goes to Mora. The reality is worse than these numbers suggest. In drought years, more than half of the water goes directly to Mora during peak irrigating seasons of June and July. Climate change also means more drought years. He estimates that over half a million acre feet of water have been diverted over the years, which could fill a lake as large as the Santa Fe Plaza at a depth of 94 mi.
Templetons assessment is not without critics. Romero, of the OSE, is one of them. Romero claimed that Robert Templeton incorrectly interpreted the flow data in an interview, although he could not point to any errors in Templetons calculations.
Romero stated that it doesn’t matter how much of the Rio Pueblos natural flows is being diverted. What matters is how much water Picuris actually receives and whether it is enough to meet their needs. He said that fair solutions can only be found if you look at the entire system, which would include all water from all the tributaries that feed the river. We need more streamflow data for a longer time. We want to know how much boost is needed. [diverted]Adding streams to the Rio Pueblo would create more water. I have no idea at the moment.
When there isn’t enough water to go around, rights are given on a first come first served basis. The claim to rights to water is determined by who has used it longest. Those who started using it later have a stronger claim. In times of drought, senior citizens can make a priority decision and juniors may have their usual allocation reduced.
Paula Garcia, executive Director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, who has lived in the Mora valley since the 1860s, stated it bluntly: There is no discussion. Picuris has senior water rights. They have been around since the beginning of time. Garcia believes that because the acequias do not understand water law, you can’t fight the pueblos as well as the other acequias.
Acequia Encinal president in Cleveland admits Picuris has senior right, but defends the diversions. Antonio Medina, an 83-year old, stated that he believes Mora is well aware of the rights of pueblos from his home which overlooks a large area of fields irrigated through the ditch. They have always been respectful of our rights and very kind. Picuris has never made a priority call, he stated. (Respect doesn’t have anything to do with it, according tribal interpreter Shields. If Picuris made priority calls, it would legitimize Moras claims to the water. The pueblo would prefer to struggle with less water than validating the diversions.
Garcia noted that there was an attempt to create a task team to explore the possibility for calming tensions with Pueblo. This group included representatives from all Mora Acequias that were fed by the diversions. It collapsed because of infighting and accusations that they were taking water from one another.
The Cleveland diversion which feeds Encinal acequias and the Caoncito, now blocks water flowing into the Rio Pueblo. The Holman Parciantes are furious. Caoncito (and Encinal) are destroying the ecosystem, Picuris, la Sierra and the wetlands, said Jimmy Sanchez. He is a fifth-generation mayordomo on the Holman acequia. They increased their diversion so that it now takes the entire Alamitos with nothing going to us and Picuris. Our 1935 acequia statement states that la Sierra gets its food from Alamitos. They are taking more than they share. Picuris fight must be with them, and not with us.
The Caoncito Acequia leadership is unapologetic. Barbara Bradshaw is a retired nurse who has served as its treasurer since 2013, when she moved to Cleveland with Larry, an insurance salesman who is Caoncitos mayordomo. Barbara replied via email that she would like to see a fair resolution to the dispute. The resolution must be legal and comply with New Mexico water law. Fair, like beauty can be found in the eyes of the observer. She said that we are legally allowed to divert all the water that our culverts will carry.
Romero of OSE disagrees. He said that Barbara is wrong. They can’t just take the whole stream. Holman and Rio Pueblo both have a right to some water. Romero stated that the OSE would take action. We’re getting together our legal staff. We’re going to do it. It’s the right thing.
Picuris was not informed of the OSE’s intentions. This has led to the perception that Mora irrigators are able to act with impunity. Who does enforcement? Quanchello asked, rhetorically. It is clear that the situation is not right and no one wants to correct it. We’ll have to take this into our own hands.
Everyone involved believes that Picuris did exactly that when the diversions were destroyed in November.
Sanchez looked at the massive mound of rock and earth that had been pushed in front his acequias gate and he spoke with anger, sadness and bewilderment. He said, “I don’t know why they did that to us.” I have said that I want to share these waters. I want peace, stability. There’s plenty of water, but CaoncitoEncinal doesn’t want it.
Most observers outside agree that the only way to unravel this knot is to share the water. Ebright stated that there has to be a middle ground. This is the traditional New Mexico way of doing business, dating back hundreds of years.
Romero stated that the OSE plans to host a meeting in the new year to bring all the parties together to discuss the possibility of sharing water equitably.
Picuris, however is not in the mood to pursue any sharing agreements at the moment. Mora has had water for 200 years. Quanchello stated, “Take it for the next 200.” You might also want to talk about sharing.
Picuris has no other news at this time. Within days of the breaching of the berm the damage was repaired. Alamitos Creek then headed toward Cleveland, leaving the streambed empty.
This story was originally published in Searchlight New Mexico. It is republished here with permission.