BY MAIRE O’NEILL
President Darel Madrid and fellow Rio de Chama Acequia Association (RCAA) officers, recently thanked Los Alamos County on behalf of the 18 acequias and more than 600 landowners, officers and acequia commissioners of the Rio de Chama Acequia Association for entering into a long-term agreement for RCAA to purchase San Juan/Chama Project water allotted to the County.
“This water has been helpful in extending our irrigation season which in turn has allowed our farmers and ranchers to sustain their crops and livestock during persistent drought. Many of our farmers and ranchers contribute directly to our local economy but more importantly they also contribute to our local food supply via farm to table programs,” Madrid said. “A special thank you goes out to Philo Shelton, Director of Public Utilities and Kathy Casados, Executive Assistant.”
He said RCAA is grateful to the community of Los Alamos for the awareness of its county officials’ commitment to being good partners and neighbors.
The Los Alamos Reporter chatted with Madrid and other RCAA officers about this year’s irrigation season, which benefited from the monsoons that brought much-needed rain to the region.
“The rain is always a blessing but in some ways it’s also a curse because a lot of our farmers needed the dry window for cutting and baling,” Madrid said. “Back in the late winter, the feeling was that we were preparing for the worst – for a dry, dry summer. We had water sharing plans in place and so forth and we were ready and then the monsoon kicked in.”
He said RCAA didn’t have too much of a shortage this year.
“It was during a four-day period at the beginning of July that RCAA went into curtailment due to low native flows at La Puente Gauge, we released some of our purchased water from Los Alamos County to offset the shortages. The ditches weren’t able to run at full diversion but with the help of the water we purchased, they were running at about three-quarters capacity,” Madrid said. “It has been great this year that we were really blessed by all these rains. We’re really grateful to Los Alamos County for the relationship that we have. We just locked up a long-term agreement with them to continue purchasing their water for the next few years so we’re really excited about that.”
RCAA is also negotiating with the City of Albuquerque for permanent water storage in Abiquiu Lake. Madrid said the negotiations went dormant for a while because the City is still trying to clear up the easements with the property owners and the lake.
“The whole idea for Albuquerque is that a bill passed through Congress a few years back where they had asked to increase the water level in Albuquerque by 10 feet. They know that they can’t store native water without consulting with us first. In other words the Rio Chama Acequia Association has to be in full supply of waters and only then can they store water. They’re also offering us a little bit of storage space within that agreement though we haven’t determined how much water we’d like to be able to store,” he said.
Tim Seaman said one factor for RCAA is what’s happening in the Elephant Butte Reservoir.
“Because of requirements within the Rio Grande Compact between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, nobody (except for one of the reservoirs above Santa Fe) none of the reservoirs in Northern New Mexico can store water unless Elephant Butte is above a certain level and we’ve been way below that level down there this year. It would not have helped us this year even if we had all of our ducks in a row but as soon as that level goes up in a couple of years, we’ll be able to store any time after that,” Seaman said. “The other thing is that we have conducted a fallow land study with the hopes of converting those water rights into actual wet water that can be stored in Abiquiu reservoir”
Seaman said RCAA needs the monsoons. He said RCAA water stored at Abiquiu or the water they buy from Los Alamos County allows them more flexibility with how they manage their water sharing. He said Tyler Lystash, the state watermaster for District 6 has been phenomenal.
“He is managing the release quite well so that we’re getting everything that we’re entitled to receive. He has been really instrumental in the implementation of our water sharing basis on an administrative level and has been watching out for our concerns.
Madrid said RCAA has been happy with the relationships they have had with all the agencies, including State Engineer Mike Hamman and the Interstate Stream Commission. Hamman is the former CEO of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and for a brief period he was the “water czar” under. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham before she appointed him State Engineer.
“Hamman knows our situation very well. I think having the relationships we have with these entities and with Philo Shelton, Director of Public Utilities for Los Alamos County have opened up a lot of opportunities for us that we would formerly not have had. We are really grateful to these folks because they understand our concerns and needs. We’re just a tadpole in the big pond compared to the other fish,” Madrid said.
Hamman has reserved some of the federal ARPA funds and those will be available to RCAA for the next couple of years.
“We’re hoping we can put it in a kind of escrow so that we can buy Los Alamos County water for as long as we can. That would mean RCAA could purchase 1,200 acre feet which is the entire allotment Los Alamos County has,” Seaman said.
“Our goal remains the improvement of our section of part of the Rio Chama Basin so that we can get the water that we are legally entitled to but also adapt to the low flows we’re receiving as well. This is a long-term project and even with the little setbacks we encounter, we’re not going to let them bring us down,” Madrid said. “We are actively working with the US Army Corps of Engineers to improve the infrastructure of our section of the Rio Chama
The services agreement with Los Alamos County was approved by the Board of Public Utilities in June. In the past the County has contracted the lease of its San Juan/Chama Project water to the Bureau of Reclamation to help augment stream flows in the Rio Grande. The County’s allotment is 1,200 acre-feet. RCAA received funding from the state legislature to purchase a 1,080.83 acre-feet portion of that with an option to purchase the full 1,200 acre-feet depending on future funding and availability. The price is $60 per acre foot plus 10 percent for administrative costs incurred by the County. RCAA’s use of the water for agricultural irrigation will strengthen the County’s claim for San Juan/Chama Project water because it will be put to beneficial use as required.