Climate change will impact Abeyta Water Settlement, Taos water supplies

By Susann McCarthy
Posted 11/7/19

I arrived in Taos after a lifetime of the poisoned air of Los Angeles. I lived in Taos, rejoicing in its clear skies and clear air, for quite some time before I fully realized that water shortage is our Achilles' heel.

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Climate change will impact Abeyta Water Settlement, Taos water supplies

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I arrived in Taos after a lifetime of the poisoned air of Los Angeles. I lived in Taos, rejoicing in its clear skies and clear air, for quite some time before I fully realized that water shortage is our Achilles' heel.

Taos was not highly urbanized when I arrived; but now in 2019 it is. One hundred years ago Los Angeles was in its own water crisis. In 1974 Phil Lovato was expressing serious concerns about a possible water crisis developing in Taos Valley. In that context Lovato was elected as mayor of Taos in 1980 because he was an expert on water law, and discussions had begun on what is now commonly known as the Abeyta Settlement.

Taos Pueblo, the oldest community in the Taos Valley, has the ancient claim from "time immemorial" to all of Taos Valley's water. The Abeyta Settlement recognizes that it is to the mutual benefit of all signatories of the agreement to share some of the water in the Taos Valley with non-pueblo users.

In the future, other competing claims to Taos Valley water will certainly arise under pressure of increased populations and impending climate disturbance. It is also evident that water users outside of Taos Valley have wanted in the past, and will continue to want in future, to capture any available water rights to meet their own anticipated, increasing water needs.

In 1969 the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer completed a hydrologic survey of water use and rights in the Taos Valley (Río Hondo, Río Pueblo and Río Fernando, Rio Chiquito, Río Grande del Ranchos watersheds). The hydrologic survey is the basis of adjudication of water ownership in the Taos Valley, resulting in the Abeyta Settlement, which in essence established a water budget for Taos Valley water users.

After half a century, there are changes in water use that the Abeyta Settlement did not anticipate. Perhaps the major area of difficulty for a current water budget arises from the fact that the settlement was formulated prior to general awareness of the climate crises we now know we face. Consequently, it lacks provision for meeting the challenges that disruption is certainly causing to current and future water availability.

Fortunately, though, the settlement contains within its terms the responsibility of any one or more of its signatories to request adjustment of the hydrologic model if aspects of the model are not consistent with new information. The terms of the settlement also provides for the drilling of deep wells to draw up aquifer waters to augment an otherwise restrictive water supply; it remains to be seen whether this option is a wise designation, because, for one thing, the quality of water from such depth is unknown.

This summer a much-anticipated conference of the parties to the settlement, intended to be open to the public, was to be conducted in Taos by UNM's Utton Center. Whether the Bureau of Reclamation may also participate in this conference is currently not known. We hope this important gathering will take place soon.

Our community is at a critical juncture in the matter of water. How effectively town, county and tribal governments adopt and implement policies to control the use, storage, conservation and sustainability of our shared water will determine our future in Taos Valley. To further delay turning our attention to water use management risks the danger that, like some ancient civilizations, we might be forced to abandon our community in search of water.

As we contemplate this precarious moment in planetary and community life, and work toward a comprehensive water budget for our future, it is already possible to discern ways we can improve on our own, individual, self-restraining water use. For example, shorter showers, washing dishes in less water, planting less thirsty plants and not hosing down concrete and automobiles to clean them.

Addressing this water shortage, like addressing climate disruption itself, ultimately demands systemic strategies. Restoring the acequias and revitalizing local agriculture are such systemic tactics, and will greatly advance our continuation as a stronger, self-sustaining local region of New Mexico which does not exceed its carrying capacity. Many more ways will emerge through discussion and consensus by which we will come together as neighbors and Taos residents to see water with new eyes and work to preserve it from waste with new habits and practices.

Susann McCarthy is co-chair of the Water Committee of the Green Party of Taos County. The Steering Committee of the GPTC endorses this statement.

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