June 18, 2014

Udall, Heinrich, Luján Ask Forest Service to Resolve Concerns Raised by Acequia Associations

WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Representative Ben Ray Luján sent a letter to U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Thomas Tidwell, asking that he work with them on a collaborative solution to ensure traditional users of Forest Service land can continue to manage and maintain acequias while staying within USFS guidelines.

The lawmakers note in their letter that members of New Mexico's traditional land grants and acequia associations have raised a number of concerns about new USFS requirements, which they say are unnecessarily burdensome and hindering their ability to do routine maintenance and repairs on their systems. The letter specifically mentions a recent dispute between the the Forest Service and the Abeyta-Trujillo Acequia Association near Abiquiú, N.M.

"This apparently new, more inflexible stance from the Forest Service flies in the face of the Service's purported commitment to work more collaboratively with traditional users of the lands, such as land grants and acequias," the lawmakers wrote. "We ask that your office assist in de-escalating the situation and engaging in discussions to find a path forward for reasonable acequia management that will not further strain relationships or lead to litigation."

Acequias, or community ditches, are recognized under New Mexico law as political subdivisions of the state of New Mexico, and many of the state's acequia associations date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Historically, acequias have served as a primary tool for local governments to distribute and use surface water, and they continue to provide irrigation water for water rights holders. Disputes between acequia associations and the Forest Service have emerged relatively recently, as the Forest Service has required the associations to apply for permits to conduct routine maintenance.

The issue was raised during a meeting earlier this month between members of the congressional delegation staff and the Forest Service. The discussion and recent concerns raised by the acequia associations prompted the lawmakers to seek Tidwell's assistance in finding a permanent resolution.

The full text of the letter is available below and HERE:

Thomas L. Tidwell, Chief
U.S. Forest Service
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, D.C. 20250-1111

Dear Chief Tidwell:

We write to you to raise concerns about a situation that has come to our attention regarding recent maintenance activities of the Abeyta-Trujillo Acequia Association near Abiquiú, NM. As you know, acequias, or community ditches, are recognized under New Mexico law as political subdivisions of the State of New Mexico. Many of the state's acequia associations have been in existence since the Spanish colonization period of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as the Abeyta-Trujillo Acequia, which was established in 1735. Historically, acequias have been a principal local government unit for the distribution and use of surface water, and they continue to provide irrigation waters for their parciantes, or water rights holders.

It is our understanding that acequias should be able to conduct routine maintenance on these historic channels without unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles such as requiring a new permit every time maintenance is needed. Earlier this month, our offices met with USFS staff to request a facilitated discussion between the Forest Service, the Abeyta-Trujillo Acequia Association, and the New Mexico Acequia Association. The purpose of the discussion has been to clarify any misunderstandings and discuss the conflicting policies regarding the treatment of acequia maintenance. During the meeting with USFS, our staff was informed that the agency had just issued a demand for immediate remediation of recent maintenance activities within the Abeyta-Trujillo ditch. USFS also informed our staff that there would be no facilitated discussion with the Abeyta-Trujillo acequia, and that the agency stands by its demands that if the remediation is not completed by July 7, 2014, the USFS may suspend or revoke the Abeyta-Trujillo Acequia's Special Use Permit.

In recent years, we have received an increasing number of complaints from acequias that need to do routine maintenance and repairs on their system, but that claim the USFS is imposing unnecessarily burdensome requirements. This apparently new, more inflexible stance from the Forest Service flies in the face of the Service's purported commitment to work more collaboratively with traditional users of the lands, such as land grants and acequias. We ask that your office assist in de-escalating the situation and engaging in discussions to find a path forward for reasonable acequia management that will not further strain relationships or lead to litigation.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter, and please let us know how we can be of assistance in resolving this issue.

Sincerely,


TOM UDALL
United States Senator

MARTIN HEINRICH
United States Senator

BEN RAY LUJÁN
United States Representative