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La Bajada wants changes in water access proposal

The old road bed from where Route 66, or N.M. 1, came up La Bajada. Access to the area from the south is now cut off by Cochiti Pueblo fences, but is still accessible on the north side through Santa Fe National Forest land. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

LA BAJADA — Residents of the village of La Bajada, locked in a land and access dispute with Cochiti Pueblo, have rejected for now an offer by the pueblo to grant temporary access to the village’s water supply that has been fenced off in recent months.

During a Saturday community meeting, about 15 of La Bajada’s full-time residents and property owners unanimously agreed to not immediately accept the offer and instead proposed revisions that will be sent back to the pueblo and federal government officials.

The unincorporated village, located at the bottom of La Bajada hill between Santa Fe and Albuquerque and surrounded by Cochiti Pueblo property, has had its water supply — an irrigation reservoir, ditch and other systems — on the land now owned by the pueblo for about 300 years. When the tribe acquired the land from the Forest Service in 1984 through congressional action, public law protected pre-existing right-of-way and water rights.

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But Cochiti Pueblo environmental director Jacob Pecos told the Journal recently that there is no documented proof that La Bajada village has access rights to pueblo lands. The two groups have been in joint meetings with the Bureau of Indian Affairs since March.

When the tribe decided to fence off its land — after not doing so for 30 years because they were honoring the grazing permits of three local farmers — Pecos said it was because the pueblo had tolerated trespassing that left litter and damage to petroglyph sites. Cochiti Pueblo land includes some parts of the original Route 66 highway and leads to parts of the Camino Real from Mexico City.

“It should have gone up 30 years ago,” Pecos said of the fencing. “If the public looked at (the fencing as) abrupt, it was 30 years in the making.”

Despite claims from La Bajada, Santa Fe National Forest spokeswoman Julie Anne Overton said no public land has been cut off from area hikers. Public lands can still be accessed from the uphill end of La Bajada from roads running from southern Santa Fe.

Darrin Muenzberg opens a gate to an easement for the acequia for La Bajada. Access to the area has been fenced off by Cochiti Pueblo. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A proposed agreement, which the pueblo’s attorney sent to La Bajada residents in early June, allows them temporary access to the water until Nov. 30. In the meantime, the tribe and the village will try to come to a long-term agreement. Eighth-generation resident and community committee chairman Darrin Muenzberg said the core of the agreement, the short-term access, is acceptable but that other parts were “unacceptable” and needed to be revised.

Other points of agreement include a mandate to keep the fence to the water source closed when it’s not in use, to alert pueblo officials to any trespassing residents see, and a more vague agreement to “respect the land of the Cochiti.”

“I do respect what they actually own,” Muenzberg said. “I don’t respect them exercising dominion over our village.”

A clause the village rejected in the proposed agreement called for all La Bajada right-of-way signs to be removed. The new signs were put up by villagers in October, asserting a right of access, about two weeks after Cochiti Pueblo put up fences and no-trespassing signs in front of the water supply.

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The village group unanimously decided Saturday that the signs would stay because the pueblo did not alert them when they were putting up its signs, a point tribe officials deny.

The villagers also didn’t accept a limit of one person per day allowed to enter the irrigation system as well as a mandate that any emergency situation in which large equipment would be needed at the water supply would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis with the pueblo’s permission.

The La Bajada group proposed to revise the deal to say the village would give notice, rather than wait for permission. Muenzberg referred to some of the pueblo’s proposals, such as a ban on villagers using ATVs or horses on pueblo land, as “micro-managing” maintenance of the water supply.

The village group also added paragraphs that would bar pueblo officials from interfering with or accessing their water supply as well as require them to alert La Bajada of any trespassing or vandalism.

Alonzo Gallegos said that if negotiations don’t work out, the only choice will be to sue.

The first agreement sets “precedence,” he said.

The revisions are set to be mailed back to the Cochiti Pueblo governor, representatives from the BIA, and the governor of the nearby Santo Domingo Pueblo.

Residents also went over a formal request to have another survey done by the federal government because previous ones, they say, don’t accurately reflect the boundaries between the village and the pueblo. They revised that request as well and hope to send it by the end of the month.

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