Rio De Chama Acequia Association Seeks Fair Treatment, Opportunity To Store Water In Abiquiu Lake

Rio de Chama Acequia Association board members Carlos Salazar, Sam Garcia and Tim Seaman gathered recently with the Los Alamos Reporter at Seaman’s orchard in Abiquiu. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Darel Madrid, president of the Rio de Chama Acequia Association, right, chats with the Los Alamos Reporter. Also pictured is Mike O’Neill of Los Alamos. Photo by Maire O’Neill/


Members of the Rio de Chama Acequia Association (RCAA) are adamant about continuing the repartimento – the traditional way of sharing water in New Mexico. They want their acequia parciantes to be treated like all the other contractors in the San Juan-Chama River Project and they want to be able to store water in Abiquiu Lake.

The Los Alamos Reporter recently sat down with the officers of the association to discuss the issues they are facing and the solutions they propose. RCAA chair Darel Madrid explained how in the 1960s, water was diverted from the Little Navajo river in Colorado to build up water in the Rio Grande through the San Juan-Chama River Project. He said most of that water streamed through a tunnel under the mountains and into Heron Reservoir.

“Ours is the only river system in the area that has foreign water running through it. Our water rights are tied to the native water rights of the Rio Chama basin. With climate change, we’re getting less and less snowpack. We’re getting warmer springs and all the melt-off is running through our acequia system before we are ready to use it,” Madrid said. “In our climate down here, the growing season usually starts the latter part of May or in June and continues into October. This water is melting off earlier and it’s passing through our system in March and early April. It leaves us in a bind.”

Madrid explained that because the RCAA water rights are tied to the Rio Chama water, only a sliver of the water that you see running through their system is actually their water.

“When people see all this water flowing through the system, they don’t realize that only a portion of that water is our water. We have approximately 22 acequias from below the dam that run from the Trujillo-Abeyta ditch, which is the northern-most, to the Salazar Ditch, which is the last one to receive water,” he said.

The foreign water that’s running through the system is owned mostly by contractors of the original San Juan–Chama River Project including the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District which takes care of everybody from Cochiti all the way down to Socorro, and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. There are also minor contractors like the County of Los Alamos, the City of Espanola, the Village of Taos, and the City of Santa Fe – all of whom bought into the project in the 60s.

“So this is all their water running through the system. In times of drought, our main water is so minimal that we must rely on relationships with these other entities so that we can use their water to carry our water on top because if we didn’t have all this foreign water running through, we wouldn’t have sufficient amount of water to make it into some of our ditches,” Madrid said. “There’s less than 100 cubic feet per second running in the system right now, so that’s not enough to make it over some of our ditches for us to irrigate.”

For many years there was less of a drought situation in the region so there was plenty of water for everybody, he said.

“It wasn’t a big deal then. It is a big deal now because of the drought and we are counting drops of water, so to speak,” Madrid.

He noted that there are three dams north of the Rio Chama  but the RCAA has no native water storage rights in any of them.

“When the Rio Grande Compact was established in the late 20s or 30s, none of the RCAA acequias were invited to the table. They didn’t have a voice in those discussions at all. The parciantes were busy being farmers and were not organized. The same thing happened during the San Juan-Chama River Project. For all that we can tell, we weren’t invited to the table and all these decisions were made without our participation. When all was said and done we were left with all these rules and regulations that we have to abide by so it’s almost like taxation without representation,” Madrid said.

He noted that regulations for the acequias are all set through court orders with the State Engineer’s Office having the most authority.

“We are one of  the most regulated river systems in the entire nation. We are under everybody’s thumb. We’re under the State Engineer’s Office, we’re under the Interstate Stream Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and on and on,” Madrid said. “The thing that saves us is that the New Mexico state constitution recognizes the acequias.  Acequias were the first form of government and they are recognized as such in the state constitution where there is a whole section dedicated to water rights and acequias are on the top tier.”

As a regional acequia association, Madrid says the RCAA’s job is to reinforce those provisions, refine them.

“We have to do more to protect those rights and our first line of defense is our bylaws for each individual acequia. As a regional association we try to keep in touch with each ditch and make sure that their bylaws are up-to-date. We’re a non-profit, we’re all volunteers and we don’t receive a dime for our work – it’s a labor of love,” he said.

The 22 RCAA ditches have the oldest priority dates for rights to the water with some of them going back to the 1600s. Madrid believes those are probably the oldest water rights in the entire nation, second only to Native Americans. The ditch behind his home has been in continual use for more than 400 years. Families of others on the board have been irrigating for hundreds of years in the area.

“This is a way of life but it’s changing. The young ones don’t have the same enthusiasm as our generation. I grew up in Pojoaque in the 70s when it was considered a rite of passage to be involved in spring cleaning. If you got caught in town on the weekends that they were cleaning the ditches without a shovel in your hand you were publicly shamed. On the weekends in the springtime you were expected to be out there with a shovel ready to clean ditches,” Madrid said. “The kids nowadays don’t share that same enthusiasm. There are a handful that do and they are superstars right now. We have several in our community that are already starting to contribute to the process and we want to encourage and foster that kind of thing. So that’s another thing as a regional association, we want to look into the future – not just what we can secure for water, but who’s going to manage and take care of it at that time.”

The RCAA is facing new issues including how new legislation for the growth of cannabis in the state will affect the acequias. There is a concern that people with deep pockets will try to buy up vacant properties in the region and not respect the historical acequia customs. The cannabis legislation doesn’t just affect the acequias but also the domestic water associations. Another concern is outsiders buying property in the Upper Rio Chama Basin and building ponds without permission from the state.

“Where are they going to get the water from? It’s illegal diversion and illegal repurposing of water,” Madrid said. He added that state government is extremely short-staffed and has some of the biggest responsibilities.

“Unique situations create unique opportunities. We’re probably the only regional acequia association that can buy foreign water and what we will do with that water is we will rely on the bigger fish like Rio Grande Conservancy District water. They allow us to use some of their water when they release it – they call it depletions – and at the end of the year. Whatever water we buy, we pay them back with that as long as it doesn’t exceed that amount. This has allowed us to supplement our water. In times of shortages we have this little pool of water that we can spread out among all the ditches,” Madrid said.

Last year, RCAA was able to buy 750 acre feet of water which may sound like a lot but when it is divided among all the ditches in the Association, it’s not a whole lot.

“This is one of the ways that we can work towards supplementing the deficiencies of the native water because of the climate conditions. That’s where Los Alamos County comes into play. We have developed a relationship with Los Alamos County, one of the contractors on the San Juan Chama Water Project,” Vice President Tim Seaman said. “There’s no way they can get the water up to Los Alamos. Their full allotment on a good year is 1,200 acre feet and it would not be cost effective for them. The San Juan-Chama Water Project offers water for several different purposes. All of them have to be of beneficial use. Los Alamos got into it because of the Labs and the hydro-electric thing but they don’t use any of the water, they increase the flow to generate electricity with low-flow generators.”

Seaman said if the water is not being used by the entities it is leased back to the Bureau of Reclamation, which has the responsibility to honor the Endangered Species Act down in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

“They get money for their coffers from this water and Los Alamos County was insightful in wanting to help the valley,” he said, adding that Ohkay Owingeh also leases 2,000 acre feet back to the BOR.

The RCAA water has beneficial use such as irrigation for vineyards, vegetable farms, hay and alfalfa.

“Water couldn’t be more precious and more valuable to all of us. It helps provide entire livelihoods. It means food can be taken to the farmers’ markets and helps other non-profit organizations that are taking food to the less fortunate and provides for livestock. A lot of this contributes directly to the local food supply and economy,” Madrid said.

RCAA Treasurer Carlos Salazar said RCAA wants to find a way to store its water so that it doesn’t have to buy water and believes this would require federal legislation because the dams were constructed with federal funds. The Association hopes that the congressional delegation will help them to find a way to store their native water because it comes from their ancestral lands. Because the water can’t be stored, half of any water that flows past the Otowi Bridge near the Pueblo of San Ildefonso in the spring goes to Texas.

All the RCAA acequias are metered by the state engineer. Their diversion is measured, but one of the big debates RCAA has with the state engineer is that not all of it is consumed and the state charges them for all of the diversion and doesn’t credit them for any return flow. Another burden the RCAA has to bear is that its member acequias are saddled with all the costs for the operation and maintenance.

“What makes it hard is when you have these high flows all year round, you can’t get any equipment in there to do the necessary maintenance when it has to be done.  There’s just too much water and it will wash all your work away. This is true for all the landowners. When the river increases in volume, it starts knocking down all the banks and fence lines and no one pays. We’re saddled with all that expense,” Sam Garcia, RCAA secretary said. “If they were running at a constant rate all of our jobs would be a lot easier.”

The RCAA believes all diversion levels should be increased by 30 percent but they would need to invest in return flow measurement to accomplish that and it would take $1,000 per ditch, a total of about $54,000 to accomplish that.

Seaman noted that the RCAA is simply trying to continue the tradition of the acequias.

“To me, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed every citizen all these rights and we don’t see it happening now with this adjudication of water to the Rio Grande and the City of Albuquerque and our neighbors there on Heron Reservoir. All that imported water – where were the acequias?” Salazar said. “I think we should be treated fairly. Our rights pre-date all of them and we should be given an opportunity to store water even if we have to pay for the storage.”.