Sandoval Signpost


An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988

Pathways bear

An example of the data Pathways gathers on wildlife track and sign—this track is from a black bear.

Pathways: on track to make a difference

—Pathways: Wildlife Corridors of NM staff

The sun warms the air on a crisp fall day as volunteers gather and prepare to record data on one of a number of transects. These prescribed strips of land have been carefully chosen by Pathways instructors Peter Callen and Mitch Johnson to provide the best opportunity to acquire ground truth—in this case, the tracks and signs left on the ground by recent animal activity. Ground truth is the story of species diversity, movements, population, and habits, which speaks to the overall health of a certain ecosystems. This information rarely enters databases that are used to form policies and laws, which, in turn, affects these same animals. Now, after several years of compiling data, Pathways is poised to share the results. The Sandia Mountain Natural History Center and the Sandia Ranger District of the Cibola N.F. have both made requests of our database.

Mitch Johnson and Peter Callen made a commitment early on to put together a wildlife track-and-sign monitoring program. They researched other successful programs around the country, sought out professional training, and were able to encourage others to join in the program. They trained themselves and volunteers for two years before gaining the minimum qualifications needed to gather data officially. Along with teams of qualified volunteers and certified team leaders, they have now gathered three years of worthy data. Last year, with the help of volunteer Mary Deschene and Professor Kurt Menke (Birds-Eye-View GIS), Peter Callen was able to start transcribing the painstakingly gathered field data into an Excel program, a necessary step for layering the data into a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) database, which is how data is shared. Lolly Jones volunteered to help with the transcription, and made it possible for the task to be completed with sanity left over.

Pathways has been able to make strides because of the people who not only hold wildlife dear, but are willing to actively do their part. Laura Robbins and Cirrelda Snider/Bryan, both members of Pathways Community Outreach Committee, spearheaded the seventy-foot-long community mosaic mural project, entitled, “Protect Our Wildlife Corridors,” which involved hundreds of local and regional community members. The mural seeks to raise awareness of the needs of New Mexico’s native animals, the necessity of maintaining genetic viability through travel. All work was volunteered and materials acquired on a shoestring budget. Professional artists, new artists, and helpers of all ages participated.

The real story of Pathways is helping to maintain nature’s connectivity. It is protecting wildlife from ignorance, greed, and cruelty. “We conserve what we love; we love what we understand; and we understand what we are taught.” In this spirit, Pathways would like to provide another avenue for those who would like to get involved. Growing an active membership is key to the expansion of Pathways mission. Now, as different agencies are interested in our data gathering, we need to train more volunteers to monitor wildlife transects through track-and-sign trainings, and volunteers to monitor “camera traps.”

Pathways needs volunteers to attend meetings in different areas of the state regarding wildlife issues—to design and expand outreach education in local schools. Pathways has been doing yearly children’s programs for the summer camp of the ABQ Zen Center. Volunteers must be willing to apply for grants and help fundraise; they currently work in partnership with the Las Placitas Association to fundraise with our “Gear Sale” in the fall and more individuals are needed who are comfortable conducting interviews and/or handling video equipment.

Keeping this in mind, Pathways staff will give a presentation of their work with some “hands on” wildlife tracking at the Placitas Community Library on March 16.

Our organization has been frequently confused with W.H.O.A. (Wild Horse Observers Association), and while we greatly appreciate W.H.O.A.’s focus on wild horses, our organization is focused on six key species: the black bear, mountain lion, bobcat, pronghorn (antelope), mule deer, and elk. We have built our community upon ancient wildlife pathways, which lead to and from the Sandia Mountain. We would like your help in protecting these four-legged highways. Maintaining and improving wildlife connectivity with the land is where we can concentrate our efforts and make a difference.

Pathways is also a member of a larger coalition of wildlife groups in New Mexico, called NM Wildways. This coalition is a local chapter of the “Spine of the Continent” initiative. As a member of NM Wildways, we are sponsoring a local leg of a 5,000-mile personal migration by John Davis, called TrekWest. Learn how you can help or hike along with John at: or for more information, call 867-5100.

Pathways meetings are every month on the fourth Tuesday at the Placitas Community Center.

Sore finger in the dike

—Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District

On September 30, 1949, it started to rain. It rained and rained. Floodwaters filled the Bernalillo watershed and headed towards the town. I-25 was not there, and there was nothing to stop the deluge. Most of the town went under water, many homes were destroyed, and a huge mess was left to clean up. People had to be rescued from their collapsing homes, the main road was closed, and rail service interrupted. The National Guard was called out.

In response to Bernalillo’s periodic flooding, on March 18, 1955, the Santa Fe-Sandoval Soil and Water Conservation District, now the Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District (Coronado SWCD), entered into an agreement with the Felipe Gutierrez Grant Corporation for a tract of land to be used to construct the Sandia Mountain Tributary Flood Control Dam located just south of NM-165 and east of I-25. Then on April 11, 1955, the District signed an agreement with J.F. Castillo, Jr., as guardian of the estate of Jose Felipe Castillo, Sr., for an easement to a tract of land to construct the dam.

The dam, now named The Piedra Lisa Dam, was completed on July 13, 1960. Coronado SWCD retains title to the dam and, in cooperation with the Town of Bernalillo and Sandoval County, still maintains it. The District has contracts with Bernalillo and the County that, among other things, grants Coronado SWCD $12,000 annually from each for maintenance. The District hasn’t received these funds for several years, despite much effort to collect them. The District is a nickel-and-dime outfit and makes efficient use of any funds that come its way, but it can’t run on empty forever. An emergency response plan for the dam has not been updated for a while. Reverse 911 call lists and other criteria are very out of date.

Since 1949, more development, especially along Hill Rd. and west into town has occurred. A very large flood event could cause major devastation to property and persons. The dam presently has accumulated about six feet of sediment. A few more flood events could fill up the back of the dam and the District would be forced to breach it, as the law demands. This would cost several million dollars, which would be assessed against District residents and leave Bernalillo vulnerable to severe devastation. There is a problem of what to do with the accumulated silt in the reservoir, as contractors have little work and don’t need it for fill. In addition, the District doesn’t have the funds necessary for maintenance promised by the Town of Bernalillo and Sandoval County.

Most have little idea of what Coronado SWCD is about and where it came from. The history goes back to 1933, when The Soil Erosion Service was established as part of the Department of the Interior. It was set up as a temporary agency to fund soil erosion prevention projects on public and private lands.

The first great dust storm hit in May of 1934. By March of 1935 the enormity of the problem, and the resulting social and economic upheaval, prompted Congress to take action. On March 27, 1935, the Secretary of Agriculture consolidated all the US Department of Agriculture activities associated with the prevention and control of soil erosion.

On April 27, 1935, as part of the consolidation, the Soil Conservation Service replaced the Soil Erosion Service (SCS). The SCS was responsible for developing soil and water conservation programs. The SCS provided assistance to groups, individuals, and units of government. It administered programs for watershed protection, flood prevention, resource conservation and development, plant materials development, snow surveys, water supply forecasts, river basin investigations, and administration of The Great Plains Conservation Program. One of its more far-reaching moves was assisting local farmers and ranchers in the organization of farmer-directed soil conservation districts.

On October 20, 1994, as part of a larger reorganization authorized during the Clinton Administration, the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) was created. The name was changed to better reflect the work being done by the former Soil Conservation Service. The NRCS provides The Coronado SWCD with the position of a District Conservationist, as well as highly valued technical assistance for area residents.

Coronado SWCD is part of the NM Department of Agriculture, which also provides an agent to assist with process and grant sources. Supervisors, or Board members, are unpaid state employees.

Coronado SWCD’s mission has recently evolved as fields and orchards were destroyed for development, demand for locally produced food fell off, and alfalfa became a mono-crop that took up most of our local agriculture. The District hit a rough patch and was down to three supervisors serving on the Board. There are now six supervisors and a staff person, concentrating on acequia restoration, fire control, and conservation measures on private lands and households. A partnership with The NM Water Collaborative to do water harvesting and other household conservation measures has begun. Funds are being provided to help landowners make their properties less vulnerable to wildfire, and support for an alliance of many parties is helping the community of Placitas to prevent a catastrophic fire from destroying our watershed and water resource. The District plans to reach out to long-ignored communities such as Algodones, Peña Blanca, Sile, La Madera, and the five Pueblos within the District.

Coronado SWCD is the only government agency that interfaces with private landowners to do resource conservation work. It works in a cooperative manner, never condemning property or imposing anything against the people’s will. Supervisors, or Board members, are all community members, neighbors, and volunteers. They give countless hours of their time to defend and enhance our local natural resources. We have a lot of soil and water problems in our communities. Instead of the dust bowl, we face dire climate change and severe, long-standing drought threats. Hopefully, the residents will respond well and take steps to preserve our ecosystem and consequently, our way of life.

[Portions of this article were derived from the Spring, 1997 issue of the Coronado News, the newsletter of the Coronado SWCD.]

Water crisis—”start acting like desert dwellers”

Longtime water activist and acequia mayordomo Lynn Montgomery, now a Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District board member, submitted an article entitled Water Crisis Demands a Better Balance that details an impending water crisis in New Mexico. In it, he traces the roots of the crisis from the original New Mexico water laws through wasteful and illegal twentieth century practices, excessive pumping of the aquifers, global warming, and the current drought (mega-drought?) that has created scenarios for the future that some water experts call “scary.” These scenarios include water shortages caused by supply shortages and federal action to enforce compacts that would limit and control water usage.

“We could very readily fall under a federal water master and become the colony we once were and to some degree still are,” writes Montgomery. “Our agriculture will be gone, cities won’t be able to grow much, and New Mexico will become a backwater full of disenfranchised poor people without hope.”

Montgomery offers solutions that include adjudication and priority administration of water rights, use of drinking water for drinking only, not landscaping and car washing—no outside use at all. “Harvesting and storing rainwater runoff from roofs can supply all the water necessary beyond the kitchen, except in the very worst drought periods.”

In an effort to accelerate water harvesting and other household conservation, Montgomery, along with the Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District and the NM Water Collaborative have begun a water harvesting pilot project in Placitas. Six households have been chosen to be modified for rain water harvesting, as soon as funding is secured.

Montgomery says that for a sustainable future in New Mexico, we need to start acting like “desert dwellers.” The entire 2,700-word article will appear on the February website [See article posted below]. It concludes, “We can build a new desert society that looks to the past and into the future. The water will show us the way if we pay attention.”

Water crisis demands a better balance

“The altar cloth of one aeon is the doormat of the next.” —Mark Twain

—Lynn Montgomery

There is a water crisis looming over our State. It is a broad crisis, stretching over “gee, it hasn’t rained or snowed a lot”, to complex litigation that has everyone holding their breath.

The last three decades of the 20th Century were the wettest during the last two millennia, according to tree ring and other studies. New Mexico had trouble moving out of the 19th Century. Our economy was 19th Century and not going anywhere. We were lonely and poor and very dependent on the Federal Government. There was lots of impetus to promote growth, gain prosperity, and become more independent. Everything was green, it rained and snowed a lot, and our streams bulged with ample spring runoffs. Our reservoirs were full. We made special exceptions to our water code to encourage growth. We ignored the rights of others and did what we wished. This was wildly successful and we now are more an urban state than a rural one. We sacrificed our rural areas, took their water, and built large sprawling urban areas with it. Most thought this was wonderful. Water was, and is, managed and administered by a top-down regimen, the government providing the means so that one only has to turn on the tap and not have to worry about anything as far as water goes. Just pay the bill. The media kept any worries to itself as it boosted growth as though it were a religious salvation. Politicians discovered that the sure way to get elected was only to declare they were for growth and do nothing else. Water and land use were kept as far apart as possible.

All things must pass, and the good, wet times have gone their way. The TV news still gets excited when another hundred houses are built in the newest mega-subdivision, but it is becoming clear that the “recovery” is only a real estate agent’s daydream. Politicians are frantic to discover another button to push other than growth and finding none. Water officials are beginning to utter words such as “scary”.

The consequences of all this have not been explored except in a few scenarios developed by the Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly, our regional citizen-based planning group. No one was much surprised by Texas taking out a call on the Rio Grande Compact, demanding that New Mexico provide the water it allegedly stole. But the reality of that action is still very sobering. We could very readily fall under a federal water master and become the colony we once were and to some degree still are. Our agriculture will be gone, cities won’t be able to grow much, and New Mexico will become a backwater full of disenfranchised poor people without hope.

We have only ourselves to blame for this. The State has put off adjudicating the water rights of most of the Rio Grande for over a century. Texas has adjudicated the rights on its portion of the Rio. We are at a severe disadvantage because of this. We can’t claim we need water to satisfy our rights because they haven’t been determined. Our answer to every water problem is to pump water. This is simply stupid, as pumping water causes the surface waters to sink into the depleted aquifers, drying up our streams and springs. We have gone so far as to spend over $100 million on purchasing water rights on the Pecos so that we can pump water on the banks of the river and send that down to Texas to satisfy US Supreme Court orders. This is the result of the same kind of call that we just received on the Lower Rio Grande. Efforts to solve this by bringing water from the Colorado River Basin into the Rio Grande and using it to cut down on pumping have not yielded the results touted and are threatened by shortages on the Colorado. The Endangered Species Act has put another layer of demand on a resource that is fast disappearing. Even our courts are duplicitous. Our Supreme Court just ruled that it is OK for the State Engineer to impose regulations that favor junior rights users and can delay and ignore the constitutional requirement that rights be adjudicated and rights owners are entitled to full due process in any proposed change to their rights. These regulations will become the status quo, and our constitutional water code will become an anachronism. There is no will to have a sustainable resource, which means we don’t care much about our future and that of our grandchildren. Money and water don’t mix, but we can’t keep from confusing one with the other. Money is a fantasy we all agree to believe, but water is real, wet, and makes up most of our bodies. At least apples and oranges are fruits. Money considerations should be kept completely apart from any decisions we make over our water. The recent action by Texas has upended the State Engineer attorneys’ scheme to give the water to cities and developers and let the rest of us struggle with the shortage. This could be a disguised opportunity.

The other side of this black coin of a great aridness lowering itself upon us is climate change. The historical record shows that mega-droughts, which can last for decades, are a regular occurrence, and that we are overdue for one. If this is the case, climate change could make things even worse, much worse. Climate change has become more accepted as events start to confirm it, but we still haven’t grasped the profundity of it. Recently, scientist Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, was interviewed on PBS’s Bill Moyers. The following is an excerpt:

“Wow, you know, four, five degrees, that doesn’t sound like very much. I mean, I see the temperature change more from night to day. But it’s the wrong way to think about it. I mean, think about when you get sick and you get a fever, okay. Your body is usually at, you know, 98.7 degrees.

If your temperature rises by one degree you feel a little off, but you can still go to work. You’re fine. It rises by two degrees and you’re now feeling sick, in fact you’re probably going to take the day off because you definitely don’t feel good. And in fact, you’re getting everything from hot flashes to cold chills, okay.

At three you’re starting to get really sick. And at four degrees and five degrees your brain is actually slipping into a coma, okay, you’re close to death. I think there’s an analogy here of that little difference in global average temperature just like that little difference in global body temperature can have huge implications as you keep going. And so unfortunately the world after two and especially after three degrees starts getting much more frightening, and that’s exactly what the scientists keep telling us. But will we pay attention to those warning signs?”

Our opportunity rests in bringing balance to our water administration and management. Presently we have only the aforementioned top-down regimen. We could recognize the bottom-up aspects and start to develop them in a more institutional manner. Two of these, water rights and-on-the ground conservation, come to mind.

New Mexico deviated from the constitutional requirements of the water code even as it was being drafted. On May 23, 1903, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that Dr. Nathan Boyd, who had obtained a federal permit to build Elephant Butte Dam a decade before and had completed contracts with all the potential users of the water and had started construction, had forfeited his project and company because he hadn’t done anything to proceed with them for five years. This is because the Federal Government had embargoed the project by way of the War Powers Act and a claim that the Rio Grande was navigable. All of his property was seized, and the permit and all his contracts were voided. The Bureau of Reclamation was instituted and its first project, the Rio Grand Project, which is Elephant Butte, was begun. New Mexico went along with this and despite actions by its governor and state engineers, has since abandoned priority administration and the restraints it imposes. Dr. Boyd’s great-grandson, Scott Boyd, continues the struggle to gain justice and reinstitute the old acequias and the rights associated with them in the Lower Rio Grande Adjudication. It’s revealing that the State offered a priority date of 1906 for all the water rights in this suit, ignoring the former existence of old acequias and rights obviously older than 1906. The State purportedly granted the right to administer all the water of BOR’s Rio Grande Project by way of a permit #8, which, after several court orders and a freedom of information act action to come up with such a document, failed. Thus, the Rio Grande Project has no legal basis to the water. Priority administration, required by our Constitution, has long disappeared from the scene. An ill-advised settlement that favors groundwater pumping and junior rights has been substituted. Recently, the US has gotten fed up with New Mexico’s squirming and has started to gather evidence, including taking depositions of state water officials. Texas has also become fed up and has filed its call. All this has revealed a morass that has accumulated for over a century.

There is no way this can be unraveled and made right. Our only reasonable option is to return to the Constitution and implement priority administration through the LRG adjudication. Scott Boyd has joined with some of the old acequias and they continue to fight for their rights.

There are other such ill-advised settlements. They all have to be revisited to make everything on the Rio Grande come out clean in the wash. Hopefully, we will have some clean clothes to wear for a change.

The missing link that is before us, and no one sees, is the senior rights holders. Presently, we have a free for all with little control over our water uses. This situation exists outside the law. The State has made water rights private property. The State has seized the administration and care of these rights. It is up to the property owners to manage their property, not the State, so they must organize, form an association, and become part of our water governance. This will balance the rights’ needs and give the State direction. Fully shared control of our uses will give us the means to realize a balance. Priority administration is no more absolute than freedom of speech, but any deviations from it must be reasonable and free of chicanery and lawlessness. If we stick to it, we can achieve a sustainable resource.

Achieving a sustainable resource might be possible through strict adherence to the administration of water rights, but might not provide enough water to make us comfortable and keep our economy above survival levels. The present top-down regimen fails to provide any more resource. In order to make everything work, we must adopt bottom-up conservation methods. The recently released BOR Colorado River Basin Study projects at least a 3.2 million acre/ft. shortage by 2060. “Some of the proposals include increasing water supply through reuse or desalinization methods, and reducing demand through increased conservation and efficiency efforts.” Although most of these are large top-down projects, most conservation takes place at the site of use, such as an agricultural field or household. The jury is still out on agricultural conservation. Studies on the Upper Rio Grande indicate that recharge from acequias and irrigation is significant. Studies on the Middle Rio Grande suggest that there is little gain from transitioning to drip irrigation and there are lots of other negatives. Irrigation water is cleansed before it recharges to the Rio. So, we might end up preserving our agricultural lands and present irrigation methods to keep the Rio and water healthy, but, on the ground conservation in our developed areas shows tremendous potential.

Presently we use potable water for everything, including watering landscaping and washing cars. This is stupid. We need to stop using pumped and treated groundwater outside our buildings. Harvesting and storing rainwater runoff from roofs can supply all the water necessary beyond the kitchen, except in the very worse drought periods. Commercial, industrial, and public buildings might need to use more groundwater, but they have roofs too, which can go far to cutting down on it. Putting in the infrastructure is expensive and complex, but, there are lots of construction and supply jobs and every penny can be considered 100% stimulus funds. Property values are enhanced along with security.

In an effort to accelerate water harvesting and other household conservation, the Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District and the NM Water Collaborative have begun a pilot project in Placitas. Six households have applied, been evaluated, and plans drafted to put in conservation projects. A sliding scale favors low-income households whereby the lowest only pay 1% of costs. A grant proposal is ready to draft when a funding source is identified. If successful, the project is slated to expand into other communities. This is a very small start, but the bugs and hurdles are being found and overcome, paving the way for the future.

Presently, some of the things necessary to do this on a grand scale don’t meet regulations or statutes, such as building codes and not being allowed to bring harvested water into the house. Since this is a “new” source of water, akin to the holy grail to water managers, resistance probably will be slight, as Compact calls and drought make things desperate. Texas might object to “taking” water destined to flow down the Rio, but the State Engineer can issue recharge and offset credits for the unpumped groundwater to show balance. The only resistance encountered so far is a reluctance of water managers and bureaucrats to accept it. This might be because water harvesting is bottom-up, thus they see it as a loss of control and power. This is ridiculous, but our leaders often act in an even worse manner. Once things get rolling, they will become as enthusiastic as anyone else. There are good signs they are willing to admit fault and explore other possibilities. Offices in our state agencies that deal with conservation exclusively exist, so the infrastructure is there.

New Mexicans, from the inner-city person to the logger up past Vallecitos, are desert dwellers. Our indigenous peoples, Originals and Hispanic, have developed values and regard for our water. It is sacred to them. The rest of us need to gain such regard. A good example of how desert dwellers use, and don’t use, their water is Zia Pueblo. They have declared some “no’s”. No washing cars. No lawns. No watering of shade trees. No outside use of groundwater whatsoever. The surface water is also restricted. Water from the Jemez River is used first for food crops, then animal feed, then pasture. Livestock is put out to graze on tribal lands to supplement their nutrition. The Pueblo has also tried to protest new uses from nearby communities, but, as usual, has found the state government to be biased against them. There is no reason we can’t do it like them. A little caring goes a long way.

Desert dwellers don’t wait around for the government to give permission. They find the way out of their problems and proceed to get to work. We all need to become better desert dwellers. Harvesting water gives an awareness of our world. One observes the sky for another drop. One gets involved in taking care of one’s water. One experiences a welling up of joy when it starts raining and the cistern fills. One becomes connected through the garden. One becomes grateful for what Mother Nature provides. One becomes a better community member rather than a recluse hiding in the corner. “Me” becomes “We”. One stops blaming everything else and steps up to one’s responsibilities. We can build a new desert society that looks to the past and into the future. The water will show us the way if we pay attention.

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