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Courtesy Photo from Taos News Locals attend meeting at the Questa VFW

Taos County Ditches Debate Chevron Dollars

(reprinted from the Taos News with permission)

Fifteen northern Taos County acequias are talking about forming a regional ditch association, but one source of startup funds — oil and gas giant Chevron — is proving divisive.

The association would be similar in function to the Taos Valley Acequia Association, which represents and supports 54 irrigation ditch systems in the Taos Valley.

Concerns about Chevron’s involvement led Juan Montes, Danny Garcia and several other area acequia officials to begin organizing the same ditches into a non-Chevron funded group last fall. The duel efforts led to some confusion and tension at a meeting of area mayordomos and ditch commissioners at the Questa VFW last Thursday (April 18). The meeting was sponsored by the Cabresto Lake Irrigation Community Ditch Association and the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA).

The first organizing effort was launched by the Questa Economic Development Fund (QEDF), through which Chevron Mining, Inc. — a Chevron subsidiary that owns the shuttered Questa molybdenum mine and federal Superfund site — directs money to support economic development and community projects in the former mining community. The fund has facilitated seven public meetings since February of last year.

The second organizing effort is distinguished by a reluctance to accept money from Chevron, which is viewed with suspicion by some in the local community.

The company reported nearly $197 billion in sales and other operating revenues last year. For the 36th consecutive year, the oil and gas giant increased payouts to shareholders with a record total of $26.3 billion in cash returned.

Extractive industries like oil and gas consume a tremendous amount of water.

“We met the first time on this committee thing; Judy Torres [executive director of the Taos Valley Acequia Association] brought it, and [Lynn Skall, executive director of the Questa Economic Development Fund],” Ricky Leon of Cerro told the Taos News after the meeting. “The first thing they did is they had a representative of the mine, and the mine turns around and says, ‘We can help you map your water.’ What does that trigger to you? Real estate.”

“We just seem suspicious — like what’s the agenda, really?” Leon’s wife Rachel added. “And I do agree they’re always fighting [acequias] at the legislature.”

Chevron has donated $160,000 for the QEDF to spend on startup costs for a regional association, but the Leons were among several people who asserted that Chevron’s oil and gas interests conflict with the interests of acequias.

Chevron denies any ulterior motive.

“Chevron Mining, Inc. has no plans to acquire any more water rights than it currently owns,” a spokesperson told the Taos News in an email, adding that the company “has committed funding to the QEDF for the establishment of the organization in support of QEDF’s goal of keeping water rights local and promoting local sustainable agriculture.”

Paula Garcia, executive director of the NMAA, which represents 700 ditches statewide, said it would be a mistake to accept funding from extractive industries.

“At NMAA, we do not take money from oil and gas companies because of the obvious conflict of interest,” Garcia said. “We’ve been offered money from oil and gas companies, and we’ve never taken it. And the reason is that oil and gas companies always oppose us at the state legislature.

“I’m not singling out any company,” she added, “that’s just what they do. Because what are we trying to do? Keep water in the acequias; keep water in agriculture [and] fight for clean water.”

Garcia said the NMAA could help identify as much as $10,000 in grant funding for a regional acequia association. She emphasized that — with the exception of the Taos Valley Acequia Association, which has one full time paid staff position — the two dozen-plus regional associations across the state are volunteer-run.

Garcia said the area around Questa once had the first regional association in the state.

Under Spanish and Mexican control, irrigators in New Mexico shared water under common law, Garcia explained, but in 1907, under U.S. territorial law, “water rights became more like a property attached to your land. Because of the way laws changed with statehood, it became necessary to figure out who owns what and how much.”

In northern Taos County — from San Cristobal northward — Garcia said, the regional association defended acequieros’ water rights until a final court decree was issued in the early 2000s, after which the regional association slowly dissolved.

“So it served its purpose,” she said. “You got a decree, and then it wasn’t active anymore.”

But, she added, reforming a regional association now would have its advantages, including participation in the annual meeting of all New Mexico acequias, and an enhanced ability to collectively defend against transfers of acequia water rights, the loss of water rights, and other issues that negatively impact ditch systems and parcientes.

Juan Montes, a ditch commissioner and community organizer, asked meeting attendees: “Do you want the New Mexico Acequia Association representing us, or Chevron?

“He who pays the piper calls the tunes,” Montes said. “We’re talking to Lynn, and maybe they’ll concede that they’re not the ones to run a region-wide acequia association.”

Skall introduced herself at the start of the meeting as being with the Questa del Rio News, but was drawn into tense discussions in her role as executive director of the Chevron-funded Questa Economic Development Fund. She said that although some acequias had already nominated a representative to join the QEDF-sponsored steering committee, she would be equally pleased to see a regional water association formed without QEDF involvement or Chevron funding.

“What you’re saying is exactly what we were planning to do,” Skall said. “I have a list of people who volunteered to be on the steering committee. I’m happy to bring that to this group, to Juan. As all of you said, it’s about protecting the water, keeping the water here and advocating for it.”

Montes said he personally thinks the Chevron donation is inappropriate. But if a majority of acequia members voted to accept it, he’d go along with it. He just doesn’t think the QEDF should be involved.
Instead of leading the charge to form a regional acequia association, Montes told the Taos News the QEDF should use the Chevron donation to support acequia programs that engage young people and educate them, like paying “interns to learn how to be mayordomos, or learn to farm.”

“That’s the Questa Economic Development Fund’s forté, and maybe that’s what they should dedicate themselves to — not creating a front group for Chevron,” Montes said.