On a recent May afternoon, water gurgles through a ditch down the middle of the La Bajada community, irrigating fields of vegetables and of grain that residents use to feed livestock.
Before reaching La Bajada, the water flows west from the Santa Fe River through a pipeline traversing the Pueblo of Cochiti, Pueblo of Santa Domingo and US National Forest Service land. Below the diversion, the natural stream bed is dry.
Cochiti leaders say the amount of water flowing into the pipeline exceeds the amount allocated to La Bajada’s 52 acres of farmland as a result of modifications made to the diversion structure.
In short, the pueblo accuses the acequia community of taking too much water from the river.
La Bajada denies the claim, arguing that even in years when there is enough water in the Santa Fe River, they don’t reach their full, legal allotment.
A lack of reliable monitoring systems has made it difficult for the Office of the State Engineer to verify the pueblo’s assertion. The situation offers a window onto one of New Mexico’s most pressing problems: Less and less water is flowing through the state as climate change and persistent drought tighten their grip.
Standing above the underground pipeline that used to be a “cheenah,” more widely known now as an acequia, Gov. Phillip Quintana of the Pueblo of Cochiti tells SFR, “It’s our duty as caretakers of this area” to ensure that the water continues to flow and sustains the ecosystems surrounding the Santa Fe River.
Quintana says the siphoning of water is starving the Santa Fe River and the ecosystem around it.
“We hope it gets to the ocean, because we know once it gets to the ocean it turns into clouds, it comes back to us in the form of rains, and it’s like a full circle,” the governor says.
Alonzo Gallegos, chairman of the La Bajada Community Ditch and Mutual Domestic Water Association, disputes the claim that residents of La Bajada are diverting too much water. Given the acreage of irrigable farmland, he says La Bajada is entitled to roughly 200 acre-feet of water per year from the Santa Fe River.
“And we don’t use it all because that water doesn’t exist,” Gallegos tells SFR.
He says the pipeline only diverts water between March and November, and whatever water isn’t used to irrigate the field or stored in the 1.3 acre-foot holding pond flows back into the Santa Fe River on Cochiti property.
Gallegos notes the pipeline was built around 2014 with a grant from the Interstate Stream Commission.
The Pueblo of Cochiti estimates significantly more water is flowing into the diversion, based on data from a United States Geological Survey meter located below the diversion.
Gallegos disagrees, noting the gauge doesn’t measure the diversion’s flow, but rather the volume of water in the Santa Fe River. He adds that La Bajada residents aren’t irrigating about half of their acreage because there isn’t sufficient water flowing into the river from the City of Santa Fe’s wastewater treatment facility.
State Engineer Mike Hamman tells SFR that La Bajada residents have historical recognition of the community’s ditch. “They do have the right to divert water from the river,” Hamman says.
Just how much water can legally be diverted, compared to the actual quantity diverted, is another question. Hamman says without a meter above the diversion, it’s difficult to parse out the totals.
Hamman notes a small acequia below the diversion, the Gammanche Ditch, must receive some water from the Santa Fe River, but there is no “formal bypass requirement for ‘the river.’”
The issue of limited monitoring capabilities, given the sheer number of waterways in the state, is larger in some basins than others, Hamman says. Some basins have more regulated metering, while others rely on self-reporting, which can lead to disputes when shortages occur.
That’s something Hamman hopes to change during his tenure as state engineer, a position he took on in February. “Especially as climate change and everything kind of tightens up the water supply, we certainly are going to go, more and more, to measurement and recording,” he says.
The diversion reflects the messy complexities of water laws in the state.
La Bajada and the Pueblo of Cochiti remain closely aligned on the issue of the San Juan-Chama Return Flow Project: A pipeline that would divert effluent from the wastewater treatment facility back to the Rio Grande and enable the City of Santa Fe to extract more water from the river.
Both groups oppose the pipeline. They say it would dry up the already parched Santa Fe River, contending the city isn’t acting as a good upstream neighbor.
But the two communities’ opinions diverge on the topic of the La Bajada pipeline.
Quintana says rerouting nearly 100% of the water into the La Bajada ditch essentially means the diversion is functioning just as the city’s return flow pipeline would. Quintana asks how his neighbors can rally against the city’s behavior when, from his perspective, they’re doing the same thing.
“I understand the frustration but it’s our frustration too, because it’s not enough water,” says Gallegos.
Reuben Montes, tribal liaison program manager with the Santa Fe National Forest, has visited the diversion site twice, per the request of Cochiti Pueblo, once in 2017 and again in 2018. The purpose of the visits, Montes says, was “so that we had a visual understanding of…how it was constructed and what materials were used.”
Montes says he’s not aware of a formal complaint about the pipeline.
He says the US Forest Service is aware of the debate but no actions have been taken since those site visits, which he attributes to staff turnover and the pandemic.
Montes says the concerns over water shortages typically crop up this time of year, but often subside when the monsoons come and rivers begin swelling. Yet as the reliability of the monsoon season lessens, Montes says the forest service would be interested in reaching a resolution with the involved parties.