Cerro Vista Farms in Northern New Mexico. (Eva Sideris)
Finding water on top of the world: Water issues of New Mexico
Located near the base of an extinct volcano in Northern New Mexico, Daniel Carmona’s Cerro Vista Farms defies the area’s natural dryness and manages to grow bok choy, radishes, basil, collard greens, and more.
The property neighbors Top of the World Farm, which has been at the center of controversy surrounding water rights in the area for years. According to Carmona, who also goes by Farmer Dan, the business was started in the 1950s by a group of insurance companies who wanted to lose money for a tax write-off. Top of the World Farm received a permit to divert millions of gallons of water, said Carmona, which severely disrupted the Upper Rio Grande Watershed while inducing distrust in local communities with their water rights.
Last summer, I met with Carmona at his Cerro Vista Farms to learn about his relationship with water and how he copes with water scarcity in one of the driest places in North America. During our conversation, Carmona describes how the history of water rights and land use in Northern New Mexico has greatly influenced his ability to access water.
This multimedia presentation combines our conversation in podcast form, with a visual presentation of images captured at his Cerro Vista Farms and the surrounding areas. Please explore both below!
Across all states, water issues are becoming more critical by the day. Due to climate change and watershed management, New Mexico has been experiencing water scarcity for longer and drier periods, making it more vulnerable to uncontrolled wildfires and salinization. Limited precipitation at the headwaters of the Rio Grande river, is exacerbating water issues downstate. You can help mitigate water scarcity issues through watershed conservation and stream restoration initiatives, and by learning about water justice in your community.
This story was featured in our series, Slipping through our fingers: The future of water.
Full transcript below:
Eva Sideris: Last summer, I met with Daniel Carmona, who is also known as Farmer Dan, to learn about his relationship with water and how he copes with water scarcity in one of the driest places in North America. Farmer Dan is the owner of Cerro Vista Farm and has 42 years of experience farming in the high-altitude short-growing season of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Taos, NM, in Cerro, Arroyo Hondo, Las Colonias, and Lama. He has been growing and selling organic food in Taos since 1977, in the roles of farmer, restaurant owner, and grocery store manager. During our conversation, Farmer Dan describes how the history of water rights and land use in this corner of New Mexico has greatly influenced his ability to access water. Generally speaking, many states west of the 100th meridian, including New Mexico, function off of prior appropriation water rights meaning that one’s access to water for beneficial purposes is based on the first-in-time, first-in-right principle of the prior appropriation doctrine. This method allows the oldest, and therefore most senior appropriations of water to have priority over other younger, or more junior, water rights. However, when the water supply is limited, the most junior rights may not be fulfilled, so they must go without water. Prior appropriation water rights are a controversial and complex topic due to the long history of proclaimed water ownership in the United States. They are especially critical in areas experiencing extreme water scarcity that is exacerbated by climate change. As water becomes more scarce, the ownership and seniority of one’s water rights will control outcomes of success and have even determined life or death for water rights owners. In this podcast, Farmer Dan shares his personal historical account of water, politics, underground rivers, and water witches!
Farmer Daniel: So I got this place in 1995, and five years later. I got a permit to pump water. It took five years, and I wasn’t going to stay here if I didn’t get that permit. I was going to just sell it or sell part of it and look for a place where I could pump water. When I got my first farm and got my first well, you only had to talk to the state engineer to get a permit. But in 2002, the Ditch Associations in New Mexico were given the legal powers to control the water in their jurisdictions. So now, if you want to drill well to supplement surface waters, your Ditch Association has to approve it before you even approach the State Engineer’s Office.
Eva Sideris: Acequias or Community Ditch Associations are recognized under New Mexico law as political subdivisions of the state. Acequias are engineered canals that carry surface waters like snow runoff or river water to distant fields. Many of them have been in existence since the Spanish colonization period of the 17th and 18th centuries. The customary law of the acequia is older than and at variance with the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation. Although the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation is based on the principle of “first in time, first in right,” the acequia norms incorporate not just priority but principles of equity and fairness because water is treated as a community resource that irrigators have a shared right to use, manage, and protect. While Prior doctrines allow for water to be sold away from the basin of origin, the acequia system prohibits the transference of water from the watershed. Acequias in New Mexico have lengthy historical roots in Pueblo and Hispano communities and greatly contribute to local culture which is why they are carefully projected in places like Cerro.
Farmer Daniel: The Ditch Association would have never approved me drilling a well, but I got my well permit in the year 2000, and the Ditch Association got its legal power to control the water in 2002. So I just slipped in by chance before the Ditch Association could say no, and I know they would say no, and I know the reason. And that’s because where the water is 4500ft deep, at the base of Ute Mountain, there’s a place called Top of the World Farm that was started intentionally by a group of insurance companies who wanted to lose money. They needed to lose some money somewhere, through a tax write-off. There was water there and they got a permit to pump. They pumped 10,000 gallons a minute, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and grew crops that they couldn’t even sell because there was no railroad and there wasn’t any paved highway to take crops from there to get them to a market – it was intentionally designed to fail. They told me, a lot of people who have passed on told me, who used to live here, that they could hear the pumps running in Cerro that were at the base of that mountain, 24 hours a day. Well, you know what that did? It dried up everybody’s well, everybody’s hand dug well, and Cerro went dry! So that’s why the Cerro Ditch Association members, who were kids then remember what happened and they don’t want anybody to drill a well because they’re afraid their wells are going to go dry.
Eva Sideris: Starting in the early 1950s, abundant vegetables, grains, and alfalfa were grown in the semiarid climate of Northern New Mexico – thanks to more than a billion gallons of water pumped from just below an extinct volcano called Ute Mountain. Although the farm was able to grow produce at an unsurmountable scale, the operation came with an extreme tradeoff that severely depleted the water table. Whatever groundwater was pumped to the fields was diverted from the Rio Grande, so people, plants, and animals downstream were less likely to access water. According to local news, Santa Fe County and four Indigenous pueblos are in the process to move 1,752 acre-feet of water rights from the farm to serve faucets in the area north of Santa Fe that would supply drinking water to thousands of people downstream while also respecting traditional uses and tribal claims to water. However, this is a highly contested issue, that continues to impact the greater New Mexico community and no decisions have been made yet.
Farmer Daniel: Wow! So I got a permit, and I had one year to drill a well. I didn’t have any money before I had the well drilled, so I got a water witch out here, or a dowser. Dowsers find moving water, not standing water. So she found underground rivers using brass welding rods. Some people use willow branches, and you have to be gifted in that way. I’m sure I could do it, but I’ve never tried.
Eva Sideris: Water witches — also known as dowsers, have been around for at least 500 years, and records show their presence all over the world. In order to locate groundwater accurately, hydrologic, geologic, and geophysical knowledge is usually needed to study an area; however, dowers are able to provide many of the same services as hydrologists by substituting science with forked sticks and their intuitions.
Farmer Daniel: She found me three spots with rivers, and we marked those spots for my domestic well, which is why my house is in this spot. And she found the best spot for my irrigation well, which is right on the road where my driveway meets the road. So I found out later, probably 15 years after she was here, dowsing the well. I found out that, in fact, the biggest underground river in this whole aquifer is right where my well is. Makes a big difference because the water table has dropped 18ft since I’ve been here. If your well is not deep enough, you’ll have to drill another well and go deeper. So I feel pretty secure with the water supply here. This is the only spot in Cerro that has water. And it’s enough acres, 26 or 27 acres, that if we keep growing food on it, it can be continued to be a valuable asset to the community. We can’t sell the water because it’s in the jurisdiction of a Ditch Association, I wouldn’t want to anyway. I really want this farm, even when I’m dead and gone, to still be pumping out of that river and producing food for the community. That’s really important to me. I’ve grown most of my own food for most of my life since I started farming 43 years ago. I’ve lived here for 28 years. Once I started growing produce here, all the old folks who grew up having to grow their own food became my best customers selling from my farm because they appreciated what I was doing, because they had to do it to survive. Now they can just come here and buy it. So I feel totally rooted here, and I feel appreciated by the community.
Eva Sideris: After his lifelong journey to secure water, Farmer Dan has finally found it. He and his son are planning on expanding the Cerro Vista farm.
Farmer Daniel: When I realized maybe I could actually farm with my son, it was totally exciting to me. Plus, he’s a totally cool person!
Eva Sideris: Across all states, water issues are becoming more critical by the day. Due to climate change and watershed management, New Mexico has been experiencing water scarcity for longer and drier periods, making it more vulnerable to uncontrolled wildfires and salinization. Limited precipitation at the headwaters of the Rio Grande river, is exacerbating water issues downstate. You can help mitigate water scarcity issues through watershed conservation and stream restoration initiatives, and by learning about water justice in your community