This story was originally published by Searchlight New Mexico, an nonprofit investigative news organization, and is published here as part of an ongoing collaboration with The Paper.
On a sunny day in late October, a handful of people from Picuris Pueblo drove to Carson National Forest and parked their vehicles off a dirt road that reaches into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They walked east for a few minutes, to Alamitos Creek, some 16 miles from the pueblo’s boundary. Among them was the pueblo’s governor, Craig Quanchello, who led the way through a grove of conifers and aspens on the eastern slope of Jicarita Peak. Though Quanchello and his companions, including other members of the tribal administration, had heard rumors about what they had come to see, they were not entirely prepared for it.
If nature had its way, Alamitos Creek would merge with the Rio Pueblo, which flows through Picuris Pueblo. But a diversion on the stream at 9,800 feet above sea level shunts its water into a ditch and over a mountain pass instead. The creek drops into the Mora Valley near the town of Cleveland, where livestock graze in scenic pastures, huge piles of firewood are heaped beside homes, and an abundance of old adobe architecture creates the sense of a place strongly connected to its past. The water from the Alamitos is absorbed by fields and gardens there.
Over the past 12 or so years, irrigators in Cleveland have transformed the diversion from a set of leaky wooden boards to a wall of stacked sandbags to an embankment of large rocks. At the end of September, a month before the team from Picuris visited, the berm had been plastered over with cement. There was no opening, not even a headgate, in the direction of the Rio Pueblo. While water from the Alamitos coursed down the ditch toward Cleveland, the creek bed that runs to the river was dry.
Seeing the cement work for the first time, a palpable swell of outrage arose within the group. It was one more insult to the tribe, one further violation of their sacred lands, one more unilateral move by irrigators to assert permanent control over water that the pueblo leadership claims has been stolen from them for the past 200 years.
“It’s time to take it into our own hands,” Quanchello said, meaning destroy the diversion with heavy machinery and redirect the Alamitos back into its natural channel. “If Mora wants to fight, so be it.
“It’s going to get dirty,” he added soberly. “Someone’s going to get hurt.”
A few weeks later, on or just before Nov. 13, the cemented berm was smashed open. A hundred or so yards away, a huge mound of dirt and rocks had been piled in front of the headgate for a different diversion, one that sends water to the community of Holman, also in the Mora Valley. No one has claimed responsibility for the potentially illegal act of vandalism. “Everyone knows who has motive,” said John Romero, water rights division director at the Office of the State Engineer (OSE), which manages New Mexico’s waters. “But I’m not going to speculate.”
The steep divide
There are three diversions that take water away from the Rio Pueblo watershed and deliver it to the Mora Valley. All of them pre-date New Mexico statehood, as does Picuris Pueblo’s opposition to them. The one on the Alamitos feeds two acequias, or irrigation ditches, in Cleveland, and was built sometime around 1820 — three decades before the area was ceded by Mexico to the United States. The second diversion, created in 1865, moves water from the Rito la Presa, over a steep divide and into two acequias in the tiny hamlet of Chacon. The third, which became operational in 1882, captures the Rito Angostura and sends it to Holman. Together, they irrigate some 1,900 acres in the agricultural-rich Mora Valley, serving 143 users, or parciantes.
Picuris wants to see all three diversions dismantled and the streams returned to their natural courses. This could bring substantially higher flows to the pueblo, where about 250 of some 385 tribal members live on the same land that their ancestors have called home for the past millennium. Doing so, however, could critically impact the residents in the Mora Valley who have relied on these waters for generations, today primarily to grow hay.
“Without this supplemental water, we wouldn’t make it,” said 79-year-old Eufracio Vigil, whose family has been in Chacon for four generations and who has personally helped maintain the local acequias since the 1950s.
While the dispute over the diversions is emblematic of simmering water conflicts across the drought-stricken American West — as well as broader conversations about righting historical wrongs against Indigenous peoples — it is also uniquely New Mexican. Complex and vague water laws regarding pueblos, acequias and natural streams make the prospect of pursuing a legal settlement monumentally daunting for all sides. The possibility of reaching a sharing agreement, in which Mora would receive less water but Picuris wouldn’t get it all, has been rejected by the pueblo and some of the irrigators.
‘El agua es vida’
In the high desert valleys of New Mexico, the saying “el agua es vida” — water is life — is a self-apparent truism. Where water flows, things grow, creating green ribbons that trace the outlines of rivers and streams. These fertile floodplains are often framed by dry, rocky hills and mesas speckled with hardy piñon trees, juniper and cacti.
Beginning in the late 16th century, Spanish colonists created a system of gravity-fed acequias in New Mexico to grow food and fodder. About 700 acequias currently operate in the state, according to the New Mexico Acequia Association. In many communities, they are seen as crucial not only to the survival of fields and orchards, but also to centuries-old local traditions — to the very soul of a place. The annual spring limpia (ditch cleaning); the opening of headgates; the dialogues about water-sharing arrangements in times of drought; the sight of water flowing like capillaries through towns, around farm plots — or in the case of Las Trampas, down a flume carved from tree trunks — are all part of what makes New Mexico New Mexico, especially in its small villages.
Typically, each acequia operates within a single watershed: water is channeled from a river to fields that lie alongside it. All of the water remains within the same hydrological system. But the three diversions at the heart of the dispute between Picuris and irrigators in the Mora Valley are different. The irrigators take water that belongs to the Rio Pueblo — which is part of the Rio Grande Basin — and move it to the Mora River, in the Arkansas River Basin. This strikes Picuris as ecologically and spiritually criminal.
“They’re killing the land, killing the environment,” Quanchello said at Alamitos Creek. He made a sweeping gesture to indicate the entirety of the landscape: “This is our homeland. It’s all significant to us,” he said. “Our herbs and traditional medicines and spiritual plants are being depleted because they need water. You can’t just replace this stuff.”
“Water is vital from a spiritual perspective,” said Picuris Tribal Interpreter Cecilia Shields, one of the group at the creek with Quanchello. “And these waters, which flow from around Serpent Lake, are particularly sacred. It’s a place of prayer, a place where our people pilgrimage, our center place,” she explained. “The whole of Jicarita Peak and what the mountain holds are all sacred, and to remove things from it” — as the diversions do — “is to cut off the balance. The people of Mora taking the water, it’s a desecration. It’s heartbreaking.
“We have no issues with anyone on our same watershed,” Shields added. “Of course we’ll share with them, but not with users taking the water where it wouldn’t naturally go.”
Long battles, harsh betrayals
Picuris first lodged protests against the diversions to Cleveland and Chacon as early as the late 1860s. They were summarily ignored. When the Holman ditch became operational in 1882, the pueblo, with the help of Indian Agent Benjamin Thomas, promptly pursued a lawsuit in district court.
In a betrayal that stings to this day, the attorney assigned by the Department of Justice to represent Picuris in the suit simply never showed up in court. This was a “disaster” for Picuris, Malcolm Ebright — a lawyer who has worked with pueblos and acequias — wrote in a 2017 article for the New Mexico Historical Review. Unable to find anyone willing to take their case, it was ultimately dismissed in 1885.
Records from the lawsuit contribute both clarity and confusion to the history of the diversions. While filings in the case clearly stated Picuris’ objections to all three ditches and the harm they were causing the pueblo, the remedy they sought specifically requested an injunction only against the one to Holman. Additionally, the Indian agent wrote that Antonio Olguín, who founded the community of Cleveland, “was allowed [by Picuris] to take this water” when he masterminded the first diversion. Irrigators in Cleveland today take those words as proof that they did not steal the water. It is a position with which Ebright, a noted author of books on pueblo history, tends to agree. “There doesn’t appear to have been any protest against it at the time of construction,” he said in an interview.
Picuris flatly rejects this conclusion, pointing out that there is nothing in the historical record that corroborates Thomas’ statement. “There is no documentation showing that we gave them any water,” Quanchello said. “And even if so, we would never have given them permission to take an entire stream! Our elders tell us that their elders had told them that our people have always wanted the water back.”
‘Difficult to convince non-Indians’
There are no simple paths forward for Picuris. Pressing their claims in court today would require filing for an adjudication to determine how much water they are legally entitled to. It’s a process that can cost millions of dollars and take decades to resolve. “Most adjudication cases outlive the judges and lawyers on them,” said Richard Hughes, a lawyer and water-rights expert who has represented several pueblos. He is currently working on cases that were first filed in the 1960s.
“Complicated cases like this one require lots of expert work — from the historical to the hydrological. It gets very expensive,” Hughes said. But, he noted, voluntary water-sharing agreements aren’t easily reached, either. “If you don’t have legal proceedings ongoing, it’s difficult to convince non-Indians that you have any leverage against them. It’s difficult to convince people who have been using this water for over a century to give up some of what they have.”
Official statistics that accurately convey just how much water is being diverted from the Rio Pueblo to the Mora River don’t exist. One former president of the Embudo Valley Regional Acequia Association, however, has pored over the available data, comparing flows on the Rio Pueblo with flows into the diversions. “Fifteen to 20 percent of all the water that should be going into the Rio Pueblo is going to Mora,” Robert Templeton concluded. But the reality is worse than those numbers imply: “In drought years, over 50 percent of the water goes to Mora during the peak irrigating season of June and July — and climate change means more drought years.” He estimates that “more than half a million acre-feet of water” has been diverted over the years — which could fill a lake the size of the Santa Fe Plaza to a depth of 94 miles.
Templeton’s assessment is not without its critics. Among them is Romero of the OSE. “Robert Templeton interpreted the flow data incorrectly,” Romero said in an interview, though he couldn’t point to any specific errors in Templeton’s calculations.
What matters, Romero said, is not what percentage of the Rio Pueblo’s natural flow is being diverted, but how much water Picuris is actually receiving, and whether that’s sufficient to meet the pueblo’s needs. To create a fair solution, “You have to look at the whole system,” which would include all of the water in all the tributaries feeding the river, he said. “We need more streamflow data over a longer period of time. We’re trying to find out how much boost the [diverted] streams would provide if added to the Rio Pueblo. Right now, I really have no idea.”
First come, first served
When there’s not enough water to go around, rights to it are allocated on a first come, first served basis: Whoever has been using it the longest has a stronger claim than those who began using it later. In times of drought, the “senior” can make a priority call, and the “juniors” may then have to cut their usual allotment.
Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, whose family has lived in the Mora Valley since the 1860s, put it bluntly: “There is no debate. Picuris has senior water rights. They’ve been here since time immemorial.” As Garcia sees it, “The people on the acequias don’t understand water law — that you can’t fight with the pueblos the way you can fight with other acequias.”
The president of Acequia Encinal, in Cleveland, acknowledges that Picuris has senior rights, while staunchly defending the diversions. From his home overlooking a sweep of fields irrigated by the ditch, 83-year-old Antonio Medina said, “I believe that Mora is pretty conscious of pueblo rights. And they’ve always been very respectful of our rights, and very kind.” As proof, he said that Picuris has not once made a priority call. (Respect has nothing to do with it, according to tribal interpreter Shields: If Picuris made a priority call, it would legitimize Mora’s claim to the water, and the pueblo would rather struggle with less water than validate the diversions.)
There was an attempt in recent years to create a task force to explore the possibility of soothing tensions with the pueblo, comprised of representatives from all the Mora acequias fed by the diversions, Garcia noted. But it collapsed due to infighting, amid accusations that they were stealing water from each other. “It was a hot mess,” she said.
The Cleveland diversion, which feeds the Cañoncito and Encinal acequias, now blocks water from flowing not only into the Rio Pueblo, but also into Holman’s ditch, the Acequia de la Sierra. Parciantes in Holman are furious. “Cañoncito and Encinal are robbing the ecosystem, the wetlands, Picuris and la Sierra,” said Jimmy Sanchez, a fifth-generation mayordomo (watermaster) on the Holman acequia. “They reinforced their diversion so it now takes the entire Alamitos, with nothing going to us or Picuris. Our acequia declaration, which was filed in 1935, says that la Sierra is partly fed by Alamitos. They’re taking more than their share. Picuris’ fight should be with them, not with us.”
The Cañoncito acequia leadership is unapologetic. Barbara Bradshaw, a retired nurse, has been its treasurer since 2013, the year after she moved to Cleveland with her husband Larry, a retired insurance salesman who is Cañoncito’s mayordomo. When asked how a fair resolution to the dispute might look, Barbara replied in an email, “I would say that the resolution needs to be legal and follow established New Mexico water law. Fair, like beauty, may be in the eyes of the beholder.” She added: “We are legally entitled to divert all of the water that our culvert will carry.”
Romero of the OSE disagrees. “Barbara is wrong,” he said. “They can’t just take the whole stream. Holman and the Rio Pueblo have a right to some of that water.” The OSE is going to take action, Romero continued. “We’re getting our legal team together. We’re going to do something. It’s the right thing to do.”
The OSE’s intentions, however, have not been communicated to Picuris, where official inaction has instilled a sense that the Mora diversions can act with impunity. “Who does enforcement?” Quanchello asked, rhetorically. “What’s going on is blatantly wrong and no one is willing to make it right. We’re going to have to take it into our own hands.”
Everyone involved assumes that Picuris did just that when the diversions were damaged in November.
While assessing the towering mound of earth and rock recently pushed in front of his acequia’s headgate, Sanchez shook his head and spoke with a combination of anger, sadness, and bewilderment. “I don’t know why they did this to us,” he said. “I’ve said that I want to share the waters. I want peace and stability. There’s enough water to share, but Cañoncito-Encinal isn’t letting it through.”
Sharing the water, most outside observers agree, is the only way to untangle this knot. “There has to be some middle ground,” said Ebright. “That’s the traditional way of doing things in New Mexico, going back hundreds of years.”
To that end, Romero said the OSE is hoping to hold a meeting before the end of the year, to bring all of the parties together and discuss taking steps toward sharing the water equitably.
Picuris, however, is in no mood to pursue sharing agreements at the moment. “Mora got the water for the last 200 years. We’ll take it for the next 200,” said Quanchello. “Then maybe we’ll talk about sharing.”
For now, Picuris still has nothing to share. Within days of the breach of the berm, the damage was repaired, forcing Alamitos Creek toward Cleveland once again, leaving the streambed dry.