August 17, 2008

La Cienega Keeps Up Water Fight


Acequia group, residents blame development for depleting spring

By Staci Matlock

The New Mexican

La Cienega's namesake springs southwest of Santa Fe are slowly but surely drying up.

Drought, water guzzling non-native trees and, in the last decade, a lot of new domestic wells, have contributed to the springs' demise, irrigators say.

"We're down to zero," said Samuel Montoya, 58-year-old mayordomo of Acequia Capilla, the last acequia fed by La Cienega Creek. "There's nothing left."

Acequia members, La Cienega residents and others have protested water rights transfers in the area by Santa Fe County government, the city of Santa Fe and private developers.

Montoya, on behalf of the Acequia Capilla Watercourse Association, this week asked the state District Court in Santa Fe for a temporary restraining order to prevent the County Commission from voting on the proposed 1,300-acre Santa Fe Canyon Ranch development.

Montoya said 8.5 acre-feet of water rights for the development had not been legally transferred yet and would affect the Acequia Capilla. "We're just saying 'look at the water first before you decide the density (of houses),' " Montoya said.

Judge Daniel A. Sanchez denied the restraining order Tuesday morning but set a hearing in the matter. Commissioners, meanwhile, postponed their scheduled vote on the project Tuesday at the applicant's request.

"I want a completely legal application for our development, and we had failed to notify one of our neighbors (of the hearing)," said Jim Borrego, a principal partner in the Santa Fe Canyon Ranch project. Borrego expects the development will be considered at the next County Commission meeting on Sept. 9, though that date has not been finalized by the county yet.

The older ditch bosses on acequias fed by La Cienega's springs and creek remember a time when flows supported minnows, fish and acres of farmland.

"This was a marsh in here," Reynaldo Romero, 73, longtime mayordomo of the 33-family Acequia de La Cienega, said recently as he walked across a barely damp patch of ground near the headwater springs. "You had to have ditch boots to walk through here."

Acequia association Chairman Oliver C de Baca, 69, said he played in the creek when he was a boy.

Now it's only wet when there's a lot of rain and some good snow in the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Interstate 25 traffic roared by just out of sight. A few cattails and some tall cottonwoods marked the seepage. The stream was barely a trickle, picking up a little water as it rolled down toward the Santa Fe River.

Romero and C de Baca largely blame the development that's been occurring in the stretch of land between I-25 and La Cienega village. Many of the new homes rely on domestic wells because no Santa Fe County water lines are close by.

Romero believes those wells pump from the same aquifer beneath the springs. "There's too many straws in the aquifer," Romero said.

It's a mantra that Romero and other farmers have been repeating for the last decade. But not much has changed.

When the spring and creek flows are too low to irrigate the some 98 acres of farmland that have used the water for the last three centuries, Romero turns on the pump at a supplemental well. In the last few weeks, he said, "I've been running the well 24 hours a day. I am afraid we are depleting the aquifer, too, by pumping all the time."

But the growers need the water to keep irrigating small alfalfa fields, orchards and vegetable gardens.

Montoya has to take water from a point farther upstream than the usual head gate to irrigate his one-third acre of pumpkins, squash, tomatoes and La Cienega heritage chile.

Back in the 1980s, the creek was producing 231 gallons per minute at the Acequia Capilla head gate. Now, Montoya said, it's not providing water there except briefly in the spring. "There's nothing but sand," he said.

Montoya said the Office of the State Engineer told him he could apply for a supplemental well, like the one the state approved for the Acequia de La Cienega. "That may be OK for us on this little acequia," he said, "but what about the creek itself? What about the ecosystem? That's all going to be gone if everyone keeps pumping."

Romero and C de Baca said the acequia has worked to improve the stream's flow by cutting down and mulching thick stands of Russian olive trees and elms. They saw a brief increase in water flows in the spring, but then it slowed again.

The acequia association has received more than $200,000 in appropriations from the state Legislature over the last five years to install underground irrigation pipes and concrete culverts on the three-mile-long ditch to deliver water more efficiently.

Romero and Montoya contend the amount of water pumped from wells in the area remains the primary problem. A decade ago, most of the construction projects and new wells in La Cienega resulted from land transfers between members of longtime families, according to news reports at the time. More recently, they have been subdivisions approved for new families.

A lot of the housing developments on wells have been built north of the springs. To the northeast, the state penitentiary pumps more than 100 million gallons a year out of the ground. In addition, new developments are proposed south of the springs, including the multiphase Santa Fe Canyon Ranch.

Under state law, the state engineer must issue domestic well permits to anyone who applies, regardless of how pumping affects surface water. The state engineer in 2006 attempted to get some control by reducing to 1 acre-foot from 3 acre-feet the amount that can be pumped from a new well. (One acre-foot of water equals 325,851 gallons.)

County Commissioner Mike Anaya said the county is working to run water mains to La Cienega so people on wells can hook into the county system, but that takes a lot of money.

He said the county plans to run water lines along County Road 54 through La Cienega and run another trunk line west across I-25 and along Las Estrellas Road. Funding is tied up with the Buckman Direct Diversion project, which will take water directly from the Rio Grande. When construction begins on that project, funds will be released for the county to install the lines, he said.

County staff said it will cost about $1 million to run the trunk line along County Road 54 and $600,000 to run a line along Las Estrellas Road.

A county ordinance will require anyone within 200 feet of those lines to tie into the county system. "If we can get people off the groundwater and get them onto the county system," Anaya said, "then hopefully the (springs) and acequias will flow again."

Contact Staci Matlock at 470-9843 or [email protected]

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