June 2015

Coalition Building Supports Environmental Protection


Michael Coca


 The Río de Las Gallinas Watershed is located on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, northwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico, on land settled by Pueblo, Comanche, Apache and Ute tribes. In the early 1880s, Spanish as well as Mexican land grant recipients settled in the area, along with tribal members from Zacatecas, México. Intermarriage resulted in a largely mestizo culture. After the Mexican–American War and United States government invasion in 1848, the area became a territory of the U.S. until statehood in 1912.

More than 13 diversion dams were constructed along the river to provide irrigable land to cultivate crops for a self-sufficient, land-based economy. With the coming of the railroad in 1879, much of the irrigated land on the side of the river the Americans had settled was destroyed as right-of-way for the railroad. Thus began the degradation of the river and the watershed.

Adjudication entitled the state of New Mexico to retire water rights for non-use. These were rights that had been guaranteed to land-grant heirs under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The city of Las Vegas started taking water away from traditional water users and drained storm water into the river, which contained pollutants from automobiles. The city also drained water from the city sewer plant into the river, which increased nitrate levels that inhibit normal crop production. Las Vegas’ City Council still supports the diversion of water from the river over and above their priority allocation, which has affected the ability of irrigators to cultivate their land. In addition, the U.S. Forest Service and logging companies have cut roads into the watershed, increasing sediment runoff, and cattle grazing has polluted non-fenced portions of the river.

Because both sides of my family were land-grant heirs, I was assigned the task of farming and overseeing irrigated land in three counties. In 1992, I was asked to teach a senior class in systems analysis in the Computer Science Department of New Mexico Highlands University. I saw it as an opportunity to address water issues, such as pollution and loss of land and water rights, facing our traditional communities. Students in the class took on the assignment of doing an analysis and designing a bioregional plan showing the importance of how biophysical attributes of a region influence the human dimensions of settlement and culture.

To understand the nature of a bioregion, it is essential to recognize the importance of having a sense of place, realize that the river is the lifeblood of the community, define human and natural resources, and utilize culture and diversity as a powerful tool for community development. This requires an emphasis on the shared values of cultural competency, economic, environmental and social justice, clean air and water, land, customs, traditions, fine arts and music.

In order to maintain our traditional culture, water rights and water quality, a coalition was formed with the common goal of protecting the river. The Río Gallinas Watershed Partnership was comprised of the New Mexico Environment Department, federal agencies, Casa de Cultura, Río Gallinas Acequia Association and New Mexico Acequia Association. As a board member of Amigos Bravos, the mission of which is to protect and restore the waters of New Mexico, I requested assistance in presenting a workshop on the Clean Water Act. This served to educate acequia parciantes about water quantity and quality issues and helped the traditional water users make better-informed decisions about the future of the Río de las Gallinas. Amigos Bravos was successful in testifying before the state Water Quality Control Commission, which then upgraded the water quality from recreational to bathing standard because there are hot springs along the river. The current watershed group is monitoring temperature and pollution sources, so remediation of the river to its original state can take place.

In the 1980s, Amigos Bravos sued Chevron for polluting the Red River, a tributary of the Río Grande, with tailings from the MolyCorp mine in Questa, New Mexico. After years of legal proceedings, Amigos Bravos won the suit and lobbied for Superfund status to clean up and remediate the mine and restore the river, a process that is ongoing.

In the Río Grande Basin, Amigos Bravos was instrumental in organizing a coalition consisting of Tewa Women United, Honor Our Pueblo Existence, New Mexico Acequia Association, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, and Catholic nuns to sue Los Alamos National Laboratory for allowing radioactive waste to flow into the Río Grande without a permit. The coalition won the suit and is currently in the process of implementing provisions of the cleanup settlement.

In the Somos Vecinos project, working within the framework of customs and traditions shared by land-based communities, Amigos Bravos worked as a catalyst to bring together opposing, diverse groups to support common environmental goals and cooperate to achieve them.

In the Valle Vidal Wilderness of northeastern New Mexico, oil companies were poised to drill in a wilderness area. Amigos Bravos joined a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local communities and livestock grazers to oppose the companies in court. The coalition successfully stopped this attack.

In keeping with the guiding principles of honoring local culture and building on traditional lifeways connected to land and water, the Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance (HPWA) was organized to foster land stewardship to ensure the long-term vitality of human and natural communities of the Hermit’s Peak region, specifically the Gallinas, Sapello and Tecolote watersheds. Founded in 2008 by local landowners concerned about watershed health, HPWA has evolved into an established watershed group focused on restoration and management across ownership boundaries. HPWA offers environmental education and volunteer opportunities to monitor watershed conditions. They also work with federal, state and local agencies to provide guidance on policy and planning efforts.

Amigos Bravos’ success in coalition building has been achieved by being flexible in modifying industrial operations, initiating a 5-year Strategic Planning Group, conducting cultural-competency workshops, documenting oral histories, being conscious of historic cultural oppression, reaching out to tribal and community leaders and facilitating better understanding between environmentalists and land-based communities. We continue to work on projects to restore watershed health, hold polluters accountable and build community leadership and capacity.

Michael Coca, owner of the solar architectural design and construction company San Miguel Sun Dwellings, is former president of Amigos Bravos. He also cofounded the New Mexico Acequia Association. mcoca 44@comcast.net, www.amigosbravos.org


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