Can long story of water transfers have a happy ending? - Albuquerque Journal

Can long story of water transfers have a happy ending?

Trans-basin transfers like the ones on Jicarita Peak aren’t unheard of. The San Juan-Chama Project that moves water from the Colorado River basin to the Rio Grande, and on to Santa Fe and Albuquerque is one of just a few examples of larger scale projects currently active in the United States.

But the one on Jicarita Peak, where water is being diverted from the Rio Grande over a mountain ridgeline eastward to the Rio Canadian watershed, is quite unique, with undercurrents of Indian lore, Spanish land grants and even ripples of the old Santa Fe Ring.

Pueblo is fighting water diversions from mountaintop

Robert Templeton is former chair of the Embudo Valley Regional Acequia Association and a parciante, or member, of one of the ditches that flows to his field in Dixon where he grows corn and vegetables. He has been studying the diversions for several years and has shared some of what he’s learned with Picuris Pueblo.

“In the history of the diversions, more than a half million acre-feet of water has gone over the divide,” he said, adding that’s a conservative estimate. “If you take that and divide it by the annual flow at the Picuris gauge, the amount is equal to 22 years of the annual flow.”

Templeton knows much of the history of the diversions, the first of which dates back to somewhere between 1819 and 1835. “That’s the one at Alamitos Creek,” he said. “A half-mile ditch takes all the water from Alamitos Creek and puts it in the ditch, and over the divide and to Cleveland (N.M.).”

The second diversion, the Acequia de la Presa, was built about 1865, he said. It directs water from the Rio de la Presa in La Junta Canyon and sends it to Chacón, also on the east side of the mountains.

The third diversion, located at 10,800 feet, takes water from two creeks and directs it to Angostura Creek where, after about 3.5 miles, it is channeled over the divide in waterfall fashion.

It’s that diversion, the Acequia de la Sierra de Holman, completed about 1882, that led Picuris Pueblo to file a lawsuit that members of the infamous Santa Fe Ring, a group of powerful lawyers and speculators, was able quash during New Mexico’s territorial days.

According to an article by Malcolm Ebright that was published in the New Mexico Historical Review in 2017, Thomas B. Catron and Stephen Elkins were among the people who started buying interest in the Mora Land Grant about 1866, “and, soon, residents of the Mora Grant realized that speculators were buying the grant common lands from under them,” Ebright wrote.

A lawsuit was filed on behalf of Picuris Pueblo in 1882, after the third of the diversions was built, due largely to efforts of Juan Bautisa Guerín, Mora’s parish priest. By then, Catron owned the northern portion of the Mora Grant.

“Picuris Pueblo was up against the Mora parish priest and the most powerful member of the Santa Fe Ring,” Ebright wrote. “This might explain why it was almost impossible to move the lawsuit forward after it was filed.”

Any chance of the matter being resolved early on died when an attorney representing the pueblo failed to show up for a court hearing, despite being given several days to do so. Catron was then successful in having the case dismissed on an oral motion. “Thus, Catron was able to dispose of the case without filing any documents to the benefit of the Mora irrigators, while at the same time attempting to partition and sell the common lands of the Mora Land Grant,” according to Ebright.

By that time, thousands of Spanish and Anglo settlers had moved into the area, increasing the demand for water. The pueblo, which then and now is made up of just a few hundred tribal members, was outnumbered and carried little clout.

Ebright ends his article on an optimistic note.

“May the story of these three acequias, built by the great-great-grandparents of the present-day irrigators, continue to inspire cooperation between the two watersheds, and may the parallel histories of Picuris Pueblo and its efforts to retain its land and water, and the Mora Valley irrigators and their pride in hyrdological miracles known as the Acequias de la Sierra, be again united into one story.”

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