New Mexico State University Extension agriculture specialist Del Jimenez [right] cradles a sunflower blossom alongside Patrice Harrison-Inglis, creator of the Peña Blanca Sunflower Project that celebrated its first annual event with gusto on August 25 and 26 in Peña Blanca, New Mexico. Photo credit: ——Jane Moorman
Placitans fear expanded gravel mining
The Bureau of Land Management is seeking public comment on a Draft Resource Management Plan (RMP) that includes three BLM parcels of open space in the Placitas area. There are major concerns that the plan does not adequately consider the health and welfare of area residents.
Among the main issues is that the “preferred alternative” of the RMP allows gravel mining in the northern part of the BLM, very near to private property. It also allows for oil and gas exploration and extraction throughout all these BLM lands. The draft RMP mentions positive reasons for allowing such mining, but includes none of the negatives, such as effects on property values, open space, and quality of life.
Citizen advocacy groups contend that this indicates a bias towards commercial uses of the BLM land that makes the draft RMP unbalanced. There is no mention of additional mining-truck traffic that would affect the already bad situation on the I-25 frontage road.
On August 26, over one hundred concerned citizens attended a Placitas Community Meeting sponsored by Las Placitas Association (LPA) and Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association (ES-CA) at the Placitas Elementary School. County Commissioner Orlando Lucero, State Senator John Sapien, State Representatives Jim Smith and David Doyle, and Patricia Dominguez of U.S. Representative Martin Heinrich’s staff also attended. All these officials offered help in representing and promoting the community’s interests.
Chris Frye of LPA, explained that most effective responses by organizations and individuals to the draft RMP will be those that make substantive correction of errors, and introduce new data. A large amount of public comment is considered the best way to influence the decision. He said that it is crucial that these responses be submitted in a manner that is acceptable to the BLM. The LPA website (www.lasplacitas.org) contains specific instructions for submitting comments that the BLM is required to consider when completing the final RMP.
The BLM will hold a public meeting on the RMP at the Bernalillo High School gym on September 17 at 6:00 p.m. The scheduled last date for submitting comments to the BLM is October 11, 2012. LPA has requested a 45-day extension.
The full draft RMP is posted on the LPA website, www.lasplacitas.org/rio_puerco/index.php. There is an article and continuing discussion on the ES-CA Forum, www.es-ca.org/blog/. The printed draft RMP,—all three volumes, four inches thick—is also available for reading at the Placitas Community Library.
LPA and ES-CA will continue to post material and suggestions for community involvement on their websites. For more information, call the BLM at 761-8700, email LPA at firstname.lastname@example.org, email ES-CA at email@example.com, or call Senator Sapien at 505-400-3153.
Allan Tapia, Superintendent of Bernalillo Public Schools, reads to a BPS kindergarten class
Allan Tapia, Bernalillo Public Schools Superintendent, discusses new school year
Allan Tapia is entering his second school year as Superintendent of Bernalillo Public Schools. He told the Signpost, “Just like most educators, in August I’m excited about the school year. I’ve worked for BPS since 1996 in several capacities, but my priorities—academic achievement, student success—haven’t changed.”
The Bernalillo Public School Board named Allan Tapia as superintendent on November 19, 2011. He had served as assistant principal, then principal, of Bernalillo Middle School for 11 years. Before being named the interim superintendent in May of 2011, Tapia was the district’s executive director of secondary education, a post he had held since 2007 after being named “Principal of the Year” by the New Mexico Association of Secondary School principals. He then served as interim superintendent since former Superintendent Ralph Friedly was placed on administrative leave in May. His contract extends through June 30, 2013.
When Tapia took office, BPS was on shaky ground. According to the online New Mexico Independent, in 2010, State Auditor Hector Balderas found BPS to be at “extremely high” risk of fraud and embezzlement. The district’s mismanagement of federal grants contributed to nearly $25,000 in questionable spending. According to a May 19 letter Balderas wrote to Superintendent Barbara Vigil-Lowder, this followed a risk examination of Bernalillo School District audit findings since 2006. The district’s audit findings revealed inadequate internal controls to prevent embezzlement. Balderas also warned that the district does not have a conflicts of interest policy, creating “a tone from the top that is conducive to favoritism and abuse of district resources.”
Tapia admitted, “It was a challenge at first, but I have become more comfortable in the position. The best part of the job is when at school sites and attending after-school functions and games. The district had its fair share of issues prior to my stepping in. Now we have two years in a row of unqualified audits—the best audit you can get, with only minor findings. I have a good relationship with the school and the school board is supportive. Decisions are student-centered and made in the interest of all the kids.”
Demographics of BPS present unique challenges: 48 percent Hispanic, 42 percent Native American, nine Percent Anglo and one percent other. “We value diversity and the cultures we serve. We are proud of dual language programs at elementary schools and meet needs by teaching in Spanish to a number of immigrants while learning English. We embrace students with second language capabilities and place a bilingual seal on their diplomas that will be advantageous in future careers.”
Tapia has his work cut out for him in trying to improve school ratings based on the states new controversial A to F grading system. Here are the current grades:
- Algodones - D
- Bernalillo Elementary - D
- Bernalillo Middle School - D
- Bernalillo High School - D
- Carroll Elementary - D
- Cochiti Elementary - D
- Cochiti Middle School - C
- Placitas Elementary - C
- Santo Domingo Elementary - F
- Santo Domingo Middle School - D
Tapia said, “While the school grades are baseline data and less than desirable, I know, and am confident that our students will improve greatly over the next year. I have earmarked funding so every school will have an instructional coach and a reading interventionist.” In addition to this, the transition to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and teachers covering these standards, which are aligned with the spring Standards Based Assessment (SBA), Tapia said that “this will better prepare our students for the high-stakes test. Tutoring services will be also be improved due to the states No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver. We will now have more flexibility to assist students.”
Tapia says that he embraces the new the system although it is controversial and complicated (See editorial in the “Gauntlet,” this Signpost). “I feel confident that through rigorous educational programs, we can improve our scores to A’s and Bs. 89 percent of schools throughout the state were failing under the old system of evaluation. The tests mean very little to most. The new system sets the bar higher and accounts for subpopulations. We are working toward proficiency and beyond in all subject areas.”
Last spring, Tapia sent letters advising that all eight of the school’s teachers who wished to be rehired would be required to reapply and interview for their jobs. The letter explained that this action was being taken because Placitas Elementary School (PES) has recently been given a “D” grade by the NM Public Education Department. Traditionally high performance at PES has slipped over the last several years.
Students were transferring to other schools in the district, dropping enrollment from 167 in 2008 to only 121. Parents were complaining about not feeling welcome at the school, and that teachers were unwilling to sponsor extracurricular activities and clubs.
The six teaching positions have been filled, including two popular teachers who will return—Beth Sommers (kindergarten); and Vince Sheehan (fourth grade). All teachers have expressed an interest in leading extracurricular activities.
Tapia says, “I won’t shy away from internal moves if change is necessary for a school. I don’t blame all problems on teachers, but they have to be held accountable. Students need the support of home, school, and community.” He said that principals will spend time in classrooms to make sure students are engaged in order to improve behavioral and attendance problems.
Also new this year is a program to promote a safe educational environment. The district is implementing a program in every school curriculum to combat bullying. Positive Behavior Intervention and Support is a proactive nationwide program to teach appropriate behavior.
Tapia said that the largest capital improvement funding ever—$45 million—was awarded by the Public School Capital Outlay Council state agency in June of 2011 for rebuilding Bernalillo High School (BHS). The agency recently announced a $15.9 million grant for capital improvement at Santo Domingo Elementary School. He said, “I believe that students need a nice environment that is conducive to education.” BHS was built in 1954; Santo Domingo in 1956.
BPS will seek community input on design from staff, students, and the community. Groundbreaking at BHS is scheduled for June 13. Construction will continue through the school year with class space supplemented by portable buildings.
Next year, Tapia said, he expects a new entrance to BHS from an extension of Rail Runner Avenue. The existing entrance on Camino del Pueblo will be used for staff. He said, “We’re excited about this because it will open access for convenience and safety issues, both in and out of campus.”
The Las Huertas Community Ditch diversion in Las Huertas Canyon—site of confrontation with Las Acequias de Placitas
2012 Placitas Beanfield War
“War”might be a bit overstated—and they may not grow beans—but there has been considerable controversy and consternation over the Placitas springs drying up this summer. All three acequia systems—Las Huertas Community Ditch, Acequia de La Rosa de Castilla, and Las Acequias de Placitas—have seen a considerable decrease in the spring flows that feed their irrigation systems.
Burt DeLara, president of the Village Water Board, told the Signpost that despite a good snowpack in the Sandias last winter, there was a decrease in flow from the springs this spring. Flow at the main spring dropped from the usual eighty to 115 gallons per minute to only twenty to 25 gallons per minute. Some members of Las Acequias blamed the decrease on water use by Las Huertas Community Ditch (LHCD).
They suspected that LHCD, which is further up the canyon, had begun to divert more water, as rumored, from a new diversion further up Las Huertas Creek. DeLara said that Las Acequias has long-standing senior water rights, meaning that upstream users are prohibited from impairing their water supply. Even though Las Huertas Creek does not flow on the surface to the Village of Placitas, DeLara says that Peggy Johnson’s landmark water study indicates that subsurface flow along underground faults feeds the springs in the village.
Last June, several members of Las Acequias went to what they thought was the new diversion on LHCD and tore it down, returning the flow to the creek. As it turned out, though, they actually destroyed the diversion that had been used for many years. Things reportedly got a little ugly when Las Huertas Ditch members caught them at it, but the confrontation stopped short of violence.
Las Huertas Ditch members demanded that Las Acequias pay about two hundred dollars to rebuild the diversion. Shortly thereafter, the creek dried up near the diversion and ended the irrigation season. LHCD is considering future use of a holding pond, and renewal of the old upstream diversion. LHCD Board Chairman Jon Couch says that in order to retain water rights, acequia systems are required to “exert due diligence to apply water for beneficial use.”
Couch wrote, “This is not a new controversy. In 1942, in a statement before the district court, the Village commissioners said that in 1886 water disputes between the communities of Las Huertas and Las Placitas resulted in a meeting of the two mayordomos. An agreement was made, they say, that conceded to Las Placitas rights in “surplus” waters from the diversion that La Jara Ditch uses, and that the Village might build its own ditch, called La Joya in the statement, to accept the flood waters.” (See more of Couch’s letter in the Gauntlet, this Signpost.)
Couch says that Las Huertas Community Ditch has rights to 432-acre-feet of surface water from Las Huertas Creek along an easment in the National Forest. Las Acequias has rights to a spring fed by subsurface Las Huertas Creek including water upstream of the diversion. Both claims date from the nineteenth century. Couch says that there is no reason why water diverted into the ditch would not continue to infiltrate into the faults just as it does from the creek bed. Primitive acequias such as those in Placitas do not line the ditches or make extensive use of culverts.
A water-rights specialist from the Office of the State Engineer recently spent a day in the canyon and village inspecting the contested sites. He promised to look into historical water rights. Both of the acequias await his report.
When asked by the Signpost, Joan Fenicle of Las Huertas Community Ditch said, “My only comment is that we have had no water at our diversion since mid-June, but the village has had irrigation water all summer. Go figure.”
DeLara confirmed that Las Acequias has been able to supply a limited amount of water throughout the summer. He said that the domestic water supply, which comes from a different spring, has actually been better than last year. Irrigation will be discontinued in September in hopes that the springs will recharge.
The controversy has cooled somewhat over the summer while the acequias await word from the Office of the State Engineer (OSE). DeLara said that it is okay for upstream users to divert water, but he objects when the water is held “day and night” in ponds and not allowed to flow downstream. DeLara said it wasn’t a problem in previous years, “There used to be springs flowing all over the place in Placitas—in the village, canyons, along the creeks, and even flowing down the roads. We need to work together and share what water we have.”
Lynn Montgomery, Mayordomo of Acequia de La Rosa de Castilla reported that the flow from the springs that feed his acequia dropped to a trickle this summer. He wrote last month, “The flow at Rosa de Castilla has picked up slightly, but it is not making it to Tawapa Pond, so we are down for all intents and purposes. We are considering restoring our full acequia easement, which goes all the way to the spring. Presently, the spring flows directly into the Creek and flows about one third of a mile down to our dam. Most of the water evaporates, sublimates underground, or is eaten up by cattail thickets.
“Our easement was established in the late 1840s. Acequia easements never expire, cannot be declared abandoned, and cannot be altered by adverse possession. We can install a pipe, or restore the original ditch. This would dry up this third of a mile, and the bosque would suffer. But if we did this, we would have water down here now. The neighbors would probably get more than very upset about this, but their wells are part of the problem and they can’t have everything concerning the water.”
The relationship between springs, pumping water, and the water level in the aquifer presents complex legal and geological issues. Placitas hydrologist Reid Bandeen was asked for a simplistic explanation. He wrote:
“Springs and their close relatives, seeps, are basically features where ground water flows above ground surface. This happens because the water level in the local ground water aquifer exceeds the height of the spring or seep. The ground water flows from the particular spring or seep either because the ground water table intersects land surface at that point, or a particular weakness in the geologic material comprising the aquifer, such as a fracture in rock, provides a conduit for the flow of the ground water to the land surface. Springs often occur where an aquifer butts up against a wall of hard rock, which acts like a dam, forcing the ground water to the surface (this is the mechanism which drives the Rosa de Castilla spring, where the Santa Fe formation aquifer butts up against a hard basalt dike below the surface). In any event, water level in the aquifer and spring flow are closely related as the former drives the latter. As ground water levels decline, spring flow tends to decrease. If ground water levels drop to below the elevation of the spring, the spring flow ceases entirely.”
Montgomery has warned for years that if the spring flows continue to diminish, acequia users will take legal action based on senior water rights. He threatens to file a lawsuit to force the State Engineer to withdraw permits or severely reduce allowed pumping, as well as to require every well owner to have a meter installed. He says that all wells in the Placitas area are subject to this, not only those along the creek near the spring.
Montgomery has filed lawsuits in the past to successfully block the transfer of water rights to residential development, but has elected to postpone the bigger fight, for now, while advocating water harvesting to reduce groundwater pumping.
The New Mexico Water Collaborative has partnered with the Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District on a pilot program in Placitas that would serve as both a demonstration project for those considering water harvesting and conservation (See August 2012 Signpost or visit sandovalsignpost.com/html/eco-beat.html#b).
If the drought persists, or becomes a permanent result of climate change, the surface water shortages could move deeper underground as the aquifer is depleted and not recharged. This would be everybody’s problem. These issues are by no means unique to Placitas. Conservation measures might prove to be a drop in the bucket, but it’s worth a try. What is really needed is recharge from more precipitation. Maybe a return to a wetter El Niño weather pattern predicted for this winter will keep this year’s shortage from escalating into a full-fledged beanfield war.
Open letter from the governor of Santa Ana Pueblo
published in the print version of the September 2012 Signpost
download as pdf