Placitas water-use evaluation
A current and historical water-use evaluation for the Placitas area has recently been completed by Del Agua Institute, a Placitas-based nonprofit dedicated to water-resources research and planning in the southwestern United States. The evaluation, which was initiated in late 2001, is meant to fulfill one part of the regional water-planning template provided by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. The goal of the evaluation is to provide a definitive summary of historical and current water use in the Placitas area as a basis for local and regional water-resource planning.
The majority of the work was performed by University of New Mexico water resources graduate student Andrew Sweetman. The evaluation incorporated direct input of data and records from Placitas water cooperatives and user associations, individual residents, and records provided by the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer. The work was funded by grants from the Turner Foundation and Sandoval County.
Regional, Local Water Planning
The essence of regional water planning, as outlined by the ISC, is to answer five key questions in detail:
- What is the region's water supply?
- What is the region's water demand (now and in the future)?
- What alternatives exist to balance supply and demand?
- Which of these alternatives are consistent with the community's values?
- What strategies will implement the preferred alternatives?
Regional water planning has been mandated by the Office of the State Engineer, the agency responsible for the administration of water rights in New Mexico. This program, administered by the ISC (a division of the OSE), was created in order to develop a long-range, statewide water plan that serves essentially to document how projected water demand will be met with available supply through a forty-year planning horizon.
The Placitas area is unique within the Middle Rio Grande region due to its distinct geologic, hydrologic, and cultural character. Water planning in the Placitas area has been undertaken and promoted by DAI since 1999, when it initially conducted a series of Placitas-water-planning workshops. These workshops focused on establishing the community's preferences for the use of Placitas surface- and groundwater and informing participants on the state water-planning program and Placitas hydrogeology. The Placitas-area water-use evaluation is intended to document historical and current water use in the area (bullet item 2, above) for inclusion in the larger regional planning process.
Placitas-Area Water-Use Evaluation
The water-use evaluation addressed the same study area covered by the Phase 2 hydrogeology study of the area completed in January 2000 by the New Mexico Bureau of Mines (now the New Mexico Bureau of Geology). The eastern boundary of the study area was expanded to include parts of the San Francisco Creek watershed, an important recharge feature in the area. Water-use data was collected from Placitas-area community water systems via a survey, personal interviews, and records on file at the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer. Industrial, commercial, and mining water use was compiled primarily from the OSE on-line WATERS database. Domestic and shared well use was estimated using OSE drilling permits on file. Riparian evapotranspiration was estimated using historical aerial photography of the study area, field inspections, and riparian water-use research from the University of New Mexico. Irrigated agricultural use was estimated based on the total irrigated-acreage claims on file at the OSE, and estimates of crop-consumptive use. A database of all compiled records was created, and a snapshot estimate of total consumptive water use for the year 2000 was prepared, as illustrated in the chart above.
The proportions in the chart are based on a total estimated consumptive use in the study area of approximately 1,747 acre feet. Industrial/mining and domestic water uses tied for second place (about 25 percent) behind irrigated agriculture uses (about 40 percent) as the large consumers of water in Placitas. Two thirds of the domestic use comes from community water systems and the other third from domestic well permits (both individual and shared). The 41% for irrigated agriculture uses surface water. Nearly the entire industrial/mining use is from sand and gravel operations in the northwest corner of the study area.
The Placitas water-use report has been issued as a draft, to allow for the possible submission of additional data. It will be presented in final form in February and will be available for $10 per copy (to cover printing and binding costs). Copies may be reserved by calling Reid Bandeen at 867-1588.
Photo caption: Brian Lloyd, BLM mining specialist, shows the Signpost
around the BLM land north of Placitas
Controversy over public lands continues
There are thirty-two hundred acres of public land north of Placitas that are administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management. The 560-acre Albuquerque Open Space is adjacent to this land. The city bought this parcel from the BLM in 1966 along with eight other parcels under the federal Recreation and Public Purposes Act. The BLM has determined that the city is out of compliance with the provisions of their R&PP patent, and they have taken steps to assume control of the property and manage it under the same regulations as other BLM land in Placitas.
There are two hundred acres of BLM land here surrounded by several large subdivisions and land-grant property. This is a favorite hiking area for many area residents. It lacks an official public access, but here are many ways in for people looking for a really nice hike nearby. The views are spectacular. Some residents worry that this prime real estate could be traded or sold for residential development, but there are no proposals pending at this time. Cattle grazing leases were discontinued several years ago.
The three thousand acres north of Placitas is not used as much because of limited access at the end of private roads. It is available to the public for a variety of recreational purposes, many of which are prohibited in the Albuquerque Open Space. It is perfectly legal to drive into these public lands, run your dogs without a leash, drink a beer, camp out, light a campfire, and explore on your four-wheeler or dirt bike. Hiking and mountain-biking opportunities abound. It's even legal to shoot your guns north of the power lines. Yahoo! Excesses, public endangerment, and certain combinations of the above are illegal—just like everywhere else. Unlike in the Albuquerque Open Space Division, BLM rangers patrol the area and are available to respond to complaints.
The recreational value of these public lands adds tremendously to the experience of living in this area. The BLM does not, however, restrict use of this land to recreation. It has leased 175 acres on the western edge of the parcel to the LaFarge Corporation for gravel mining.
Brian Lloyd, a BLM mining specialist, says that the BLM plans to keep a limited amount of acreage near the LaFarge lease available for future gravel mining. He says that area contains high-grade gravel that is important to public infrastructure and business interests also served by the BLM. He also pointed out that just because the BLM land is subject to a variety of uses, not all of it needs to be used for all of these purposes. The huge gravel mine on private property that borders the BLM on the north serves as a reminder of the value of public lands.
Lloyd explained that the BLM employs eighty-five people based in Albuquerque, including recreation specialists, wildlife biologists, archaeologists, and rangers. The BLM, he said, is much better equipped and funded to manage the AOS than is the AOS Division. Furthermore, the BLM worked with Sandoval County to build a road to the western access of the AOS, while the AOS Division has done almost nothing, due to a lack of funding and resources.
Lloyd also said that public concerns that the AOS will be leased to gravel-mining interests are unfounded since there is only about a hundred acres of the AOS that is not restricted by pipeline easements, the Las Huertas drainage, or close proximity to residential areas. It would not be economically feasible to mine this hundred acres.
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 mandates retention of public lands. Lloyd said that the BLM has no plans, reason, or pressure from above to dispose of any land for residential development or any other use. The BLM assures Placitas residents that it would not dispose of the AOS property, but the fact remains that they could sell or trade the land for lands elsewhere if it was determined that other lands served a better public purpose.
The Las Placitas Association, a volunteer organization, adopted the AOS in 1996. The LPA has worked closely with the AOS Division to develop a master plan, had the area designated a State Historic District, conducted a riparian-restoration project, and completed several extensive studies of flora and fauna. The LPA is satisfied with the current AOS status because it prohibits, mining, motorized traffic, and sale of the land. They see BLM’s reasoning for revoking the R&PP patent as arbitrary at best and fear that environmental degradation would result. (See the LPA petition in this Signpost, page 14.)
BLM officials have stated that they are happy to work with the LPA in managing this and all other BLM land in the area. A two-year process would be required to restrict the uses listed above that are currently prohibited by the AOS. The BLM is not focusing exclusively on the AOS in Placitas. They are reviewing thirty-five R&PP patents throughout the state. BLM officials have stated their intention to offer unrestricted ownership of the other seven R&PP patents to the city of Albuquerque They plan to assume management of the two parcels in Placitas and Golden.
Gravel mining near the BLM land north of Placitas