Galloping horses depicted in large oil paintings on the walls of the meeting room at the Sagebrush Inn added an energizing backdrop to a steady stream of impassioned speakers at two meetings Monday and Tuesday (Oct. 21-22) about the Abeyta Water Rights Settlement.
Sponsored by the Bureau of Reclamation, these scoping meetings on Paseo del Pueblo Sur, Taos, marked the beginning of a formal environmental review process concerning the 14 mutual benefits projects outlined in Article 6 of the settlement.
The mutual benefits - involving mitigation and supply wells that tap the deeper aquifers - are the more controversial parts of the settlement.
Colloquially known as Abeyta, the Taos Pueblo Indian Water Rights Settlement Act was passed by Congress in 2010. Its underlying agreement, which began in the '80s, was signed in 2012 by Taos Pueblo, Taos Valley Acequia Association (TVAA), the town of Taos, a dozen mutual domestic water suppliers and El Prado Water and Sanitation District.
Enforceable by law in 2016, the settlement avoided a lengthy litigation process as Taos Pueblo sought rights to more than 8,000 acre-feet of water. Among other provisions, it established the pueblo's water rights; protected the pueblo's Buffalo Pasture wetland by moving wells farther west; and provided mutual benefit projects to some of the parties.
About 150 people attended the first night's meeting, with 30 speaking; about 50 attended the second evening, with about 15 speaking.
On both evenings, speakers faced an audience well represented by most of the settlement parties, including board members and the director of TVAA; Taos Mayor Dan Barrone, town manager Rick Bellis, and at least three council members; board members and district manager of El Prado Water Sanitation District; board members of mutual domestic water associations, including Andrew Chavez, chairman of the board of the Llano Quemado mutual domestic; and many acequia parciantes and commissioners throughout the valley, but especially from the communities north of Taos.
Lawyers for the TVAA, the town, and the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer also attended.
About 25 members of Guardians of Taos Water, an association that organized recent protests of Abeyta, carried signs, drummed and sang an invocation that opened both meetings.
Even Taos author and activist John Nichols made an appearance.
Absent at both meetings was Taos Pueblo leadership. Reclamation spokesperson Mary Carlson confirmed, "We moved the date of the meetings in an effort to accommodate all of the settlement parties, including Taos Pueblo."
Reclamation staff accepted written comments and made a written record of oral comments but did not provide responses.
At issue was what, if any, impact the projects would have on wildlife, streams, aquifers, ecosystems or on the larger social, cultural, and historical fabric of communities.
Facilitator Katie Patterson said Reclamation was required to analyze these effects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
She added that the Utton Center would host another meeting in Taos to address settlement provisions at a later date. Utton Transboundary Resources Center researches and provides information to the public about water issues.
"NEPA will not be reopening the provisions of the settlement," Patterson emphasized.
However, Mark Schuetz, TVAA board member and commissioner of Acequia de la Otra Banda, read part of Project Modification or Failure, section 13.3 of the settlement.
"If any of the projects … are determined to be infeasible … the parties shall reconvene and negotiate … on modified or alternative projects," he read aloud. He spoke about the importance of feasibility studies and impartial cost analyses.
Others hammered that theme, including acequia parciantes and commissioners Jai Cross, Chris Pieper, David Shoemaker, Doug Bridgers, Fabi Teter and Bill Woodall, among others.
"These wells will run your acequia broke," said Woodall.
Schuetz went on to explain that aquifer recharge projects in Albuquerque and the San Luis Valley could serve as examples of what Taos Valley could do.
Joe Zupan, executive director of Amigos Bravos, a Taos-based conservation group, articulated concerns echoed by many.
"What we need is a detailed analysis of the impact of all project components to the surface water, including the springs that feed the Río Grande, and the effects of commingling of water from deep and shallow aquifers," he said.
The president of the Hondo Mesa Community Association, a neighborhood from State Road 64 north to Arroyo Hondo, feared that El Prado district's supply wells would lower the water table and dry up private wells.
Azalea Gusterson, a Guardians spokesperson, called for a moratorium on all projects until additional studies were conducted.
Other Guardians spoke about the sacredness of water and respecting the earth and all beings.
In the only fiery exchange of both evenings, Taos Pueblo resident Cheryl Romero pointed a finger toward the Guardians and challenged them to take their claims to the pueblo governor's office.
One observer familiar with water issues in Taos Valley commented privately, "The most substantial grassroots constituents with a stake in the settlement and especially the mutual benefits projects are generational Hispano farmer-rancher-parciantes and except for [two speakers from Arroyo Hondo] no such individuals spoke and very few even attended tonight's scoping session."
Several speakers noted that the effects of climate change - a topic possibly unheard of when adjudication began in the valley in the '60s - must be considered in any NEPA analysis.
Attorney Jennifer McCabe said new wells proposed by Taos Ski Valley would affect a "fully appropriated Río Hondo." She wondered why the settlement's (groundwater) flow model did not include the hydrology at higher altitudes.
Sam DesGeorges, retired field manager of the Taos office of the Bureau of Land Management and the present vice-chairman of the TVAA, attended the meeting and said later by email, "The Abeyta Settlement has a significant number of moving parts and it seemed to me that the public is only focused on the wells. I encourage folks to read the settlement."
Based on the scoping comments, Reclamation will draft a Programmatic Environmental Assessment including alternatives and allow a period of public review and comment. The final PEA is due out next spring.
Whether the galloping horses on the walls of the meeting room signal a new chapter in the ongoing Abeyta saga remains to be seen.
Comments will be accepted until Nov. 20 and may be submitted by email to BOR-sha-AAOTaosNEPA@usbr.gov.