Abeyta settlement

Town’s Plans for public meetings fizzle as Guardians stage another action at El Prado Well

By Meg Peterson
Posted 9/19/19

Town’s Plans for Public Meetings Fizzle as Guardians Stage Another Action at El Prado Well On the shoulder of State Road 64 with Taos Mountain, Taos mesa, and El Prado Water and Sanitation …

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Abeyta settlement

Town’s Plans for public meetings fizzle as Guardians stage another action at El Prado Well


On the shoulder of State Road 64 with Taos Mountain, Taos mesa, and El Prado Water and Sanitation District’s newest well site as a backdrop, Cliff Bain and Ted Shuey scraped the ground of weeds, then collected rocks from along the highway right-of-way.

The two Taos area residents are regarded as elders among a younger generation of protestors who have shepherded a grassroots coalition into Guardians of Taos Water, an organization pledged to safeguard Taos valley from the misuse of its land and water.

The group chose Saturday, September 14, to stage a prayer ceremony in front of the locked gates that protected access to El Prado district’s property. Another ceremony at the site is planned for Sept. 21.

Traffic along the busy highway zoomed by as Guardians--some with kids, some hauling drums--trotted across the road to help with the preparations.

Azalea Gusterson, one of the principal spokespersons for the Guardians, placed snippets of sage in an abalone shell and lit them with a match. And as his young daughter looked on, Buck Johnston tied strips of colored cloth to a branch. Johnston, who climbed an El Prado district water well rig in March to protest the district’s Midway #5 well, described himself as part Dine.

When the altar was complete, the drummers and singers assembled. A pipe with tobacco was passed around.

And then, shortly after noon, about a dozen Guardians began to drum, sing, and pray. One man who did not want to be identified spoke in his Native language and in English. He invoked Father Sky and Mother Earth and said his prayer today “was for the people, to open their eyes to the destruction that could happen.”

It was a peaceful ceremony, and no law enforcement personnel appeared to be in the crowd.

Why the protest?

The chief target of the Guardians are certain provisions of the Taos Pueblo Indian Water Rights Settlement, aka Abeyta, that address deep wells. The settlement, agreed to in 2012 as a result of decades of negotiations among Taos water users, became “effective and enforceable” as law Oct. 7, 2016, three years ago next month.

Some Guardians fear the Pueblo gave away too much; others that the acequias gave away too much.

At a Sept. 11 meeting of the Guardians, Gusterson said, “It doesn’t matter who owns what percentage of surface water in the valley if these large wells reach full pumping capacity and the streams and springs run dry."

Taos County resident Krystal Cretecos added that what bothered her “are the closed-door meetings taking place in Santa Fe. I've also read past stories in the Taos News about the lawsuits some of the signers of the agreement have been involved in. That some people may have personally benefited from Abeyta, well that's a red flag."

Bain, board member of GOT Water and longtime Taos community organizer, expressed his view that “Abeyta is a calculated cover for massive changes in the Taos valley. It is an ecologically dangerous scheme, culturally destabilizing, and undemocratic."

Others said El Prado’s additional water rights gained through the settlement will accelerate over-development in the valley.

Besides El Prado district’s production wells, only Llano Quemado Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association is going forward with plans for a deep mitigation well. Recently, the mutual domestic made plans to contract with a hydrologist to locate the best placement for a well on the southwestern side of Rio Grande del Rancho.

Another mutual domestic that did not want to be identified expressed fear of harassment by those opposed to mitigation wells.

Town of Taos Manager Rick Bellis said by email that the town may not need additional wells to meet its obligation under the settlement to mitigate, should it become necessary, the Rio Fernando.

“We may be able to combine the planned wells into our existing wells to serve both as drinking water and remediation sources,” he said.

Five mitigations wells are authorized under the settlement. Mitigation wells are intended to offset any future depletions--should they occur--in acequias or rivers. They can also be used as production wells.

One claim by settlement protestors is a lack of hydrological studies.

In fact, the settlement’s groundwater flow model, developed over several years of collaboration between the NM Office of the State Engineer, the US Bureau of Reclamation, and the professional hydrologists that represented the settlement parties, is the mechanism that would evaluate the hydrologic impact of wells.

Any evaluation would be made on a case-by-case basis.

According to Attachment 3 of the settlement, “Relatively little groundwater development has occurred in the Taos Valley and a trend of declining water levels in response to groundwater development has not been observed.”

Additionally, “This model incorporates results from recent hydrogeologic investigations, including a recent Town of Taos/Taos Pueblo cooperative deep drilling and hydrologic testing project sponsored by the USBOR.”

That said, there is still much that is unknown, especially about the chemical properties and age of the water stored in the valley’s deeper aquifers.


The State of New Mexico’s effort to adjudicate water rights in the valley dates to the 60s. The Pueblo’s ancestral water rights had to be quantified before the rights of non-Pueblo users could be determined. Settlement negotiations began in earnest in 1989 with the formation of the Taos Valley Acequia Association.

Since that time, some of the chief negotiators have died, and their knowledge has died with them.

John Painter, longtime member of El Prado district, talked in early July about the history of the settlement negotiations. He expressed sorrow at the loss of some of his fiercest opponents, especially the attorney for Taos Valley Acequia Association and preeminent water lawyer, Fred Waltz, who passed away in 2012.

“Fred Waltz was a huge loss,” said Painter. “Fred and Palemon (Palemon Martinez, the current President of the Taos Valley Acequia Association) kept the acequias whole, and worked like mad for the acequias.”

The settlement’s history from the 80sand 90s may seem ancient from the perspective of today’s protestors, but it extends back even further, with roots in centuries-old water and land disputes and agreements that followed the arrival of Spanish and American colonizers to the region.

As one example, the settlement cites the 1893 Rio Lucero decree regarding how the waters of the Rio Lucero will be shared.

Recent developments

But history gives way to today’s headlines.

The Guardians grabbed media attention in March when Johnston climbed to the top of the drill rig for Midway Well #5—the first of the two Midway wells—and staged a sit-in for four days.

The El Prado district subsequently filed a complaint for criminal trespass, damages and injunction relief in Taos District Court against Johnston and the Guardians of Taos Water.

At the time of the March protest, Painter said he agreed with the Guardians that now was the time for more forums and education opportunities. The Taos News also reported at the time that Taos Town Councilor Pascualito Maestas said there was a need for more conversation around the settlement.

In April, Mayor Barrone responded by letter to an invitation to participate in a public forum organized by the Guardians by saying that he and the Town Council “are enthusiastically supportive of providing as much information to the public as possible about this historic agreement and maintaining complete transparency about every facet of the Settlement.”

The mayor suggested that the best approach would be “an independent panel” of experts that could be convened to provide an “objective, factual, and thorough presentation” about Abeyta. He said he had asked “our professionals to contact the (Utton Institute of the University of New Mexico) to develop a plan, some tentative dates, and an estimate.”

He said the town also approved $2,500 to get the process started “as soon as possible.”

No one from the Mayor’s office was able to attend the GOT Water public forum last spring, according to a May 1 email to the Guardians from Town Manager Richard Bellis.

A copy of the Mayor’s letter and emails to the Guardians were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Previous to the FOIA filing four visits to the Mayor’s office requesting the letter did not produce copies.

Recently, the Mayor and Bellis were asked for an update on the process the Mayor outlined in his letter.

Bellis said by email he was not directly involved in this process, but that “we did contact and engage the Utton Institute as an independent third party through the recommendation of our hydrologists to do public education sessions on the Abeyta Settlement, however, it is my understanding the US Bureau of Reclamation has told them it will be doing its own series of outreach and public hearings for the environmental assessment process and the two entities are talking to each other about coordinating their efforts.”

Since 2012 when the terms of the agreement were worked out, public meetings to explain Abeyta have taken place periodically. The federal water court accepted formal objections in 2013, but all were denied by the court.

To help constituents understand the complex settlement, the town maintains a collection of important settlement documents on its website, taosgov.com.

In July, the Bureau of Reclamation said by email to the Taos News that two public meetings would take place in the Taos area within the next few months. The BOR has not responded to subsequent inquiries to nail down a date for these meetings or who will lead them.

Meanwhile, drilling preparations for Midway #6 are underway, and the Guardians are making plans to renew their efforts to educate themselves and the community about Abeyta. Other actions near the well site may be staged.

It remains to be seen whether drumming, singing, and prayer will be enough to bring the settlement parties together to review once again an agreement that took decades to reach.

Prayer ceremony, Sat. Sept. 21, noon-1 p.m. Just west of Olguin's, along highway right-of-way, at the entrance to new Midway Well #6 site


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