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A water dilemma on Jicarita Peak needs serious negotiation

It’s a real New Mexico story.

Alberto R. Romero, left, walks along a sand bag dam that takes almost all of the water from Alamitos Creek on Jicarita Peak and redirects it into a ditch that dumps it eastward into the Mora Valley. Picuris Pueblo and others on the west side of the mountain are questioning water diversions on the mountain. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Irrigators in the Mora area have been taking water that runs off Jicarita Peak, a remote Sangre de Cristos mountaintop, since as far back the early 1800s.

But in New Mexico, of course, 200 years of usage isn’t long enough to avoid a debate about whether water diversions from the 12,835-foot peak should continue, as an Oct. 27 Journal North article by reporter T.S Last shows.

Picuris Pueblo is making the case that it has first rights to the water. The pueblo and its neighbors on the western side of the mountain range say they are losing out on precious runoff from the peak that would naturally fall westward and into the Rio Pueblo, which runs through Picuris.

The users on the eastern side around Mora, Chacon and Holman have been getting water by diversion structures creating acequias that date from 1819, 1865 and 1882, according to a local historian.

The Office of the State Engineer, New Mexico’s water authority, agrees with the east-side users that since they’ve been taking peak water since the 19th century, they have pre-1907 water rights. It wasn’t until 1907 that irrigators were required to get a permit to obtain a surface water right. “This was done prior to statehood, prior to there being a state engineer, prior to there being a territorial engineer,” OSE official John Romero said.

But Romero also says more work needs to be done to determine “where the water is going and where it’s coming from,” including by installation of more meters on waterways on Jicarita Peak.

Richard Hughes, lawyer for Picuris and an acknowledged expert on Indian law, says that while the whole issue of water rights on New Mexico pueblos “is highly complicated and completely undecided by law,” the Picuris situation is “a plain vanilla conflict of senior versus junior water rights.”

“There’s really no doubt that Picuris has prior rights to the waters of the Rio Pueblo,” he said.

A mayordomo of an acequia on the Picuris side of the mountain, who wants to get into the hemp business, but can’t because of a water shortage, says, “I don’t understand why, when somebody steals from you, you have to ask to get half of it back.”

This all sound like a recipe for litigation, but there may be room for compromise and negotiation.

The commissioner of an acequia on the Mora side of the mountain is advocating for a “respectful resolution” among parties on both sides who “share some of the same values that water is life and we are stewards of the water.”

Hughes says Picuris would like to avoid a costly and long lawsuit.

But he also added, “Sometimes it takes filing a lawsuit to get people to talk to each other.”

Conflict over Jicarita Peak’s water is nothing new. In the late 1800s, the pueblo, land-grant heirs, the infamous Santa Fe Ring – a cabal of powerful lawyers and speculators – and even a parish priest were involved in disputes over the mountain runoff.

Right now, the best idea would be a serious deliberation among all parties aimed at determining at reasonable shares for people in both the western and eastern watersheds, although long-term drought that has plagued New Mexico would make that difficult.

Malcolm Ebright, director the Center of Land Grant Studies, has written about the Jicarita Peak water wars and came up with an hopeful ending that could serve as a starting point or guide for negotiations moving forward.

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