The dam that never was

There might have been a dam, a mile and a half of stored water, and a new chance at sustainability – though “sustainability” was not in our vocabulary then — with thriving truck gardens, lush orchards and a much greener valley. Or something else entirely. It depends whom you believed.

Indian Camp Dam is the dam that never was. Seeing the current conflict over a proposed dam in the Gila, I looked back at the articles I wrote in the mid-1970s, when Indian Camp Dam was the dominant controversy in Taos.

Years earlier, led by U.S. Senator Dennis Chavez, Congress passed a law creating the San Juan-Chama project. The project diverted water from the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado, across the Continental Divide into the Chama River, from which it flows into the Rio Grande.

The Chama joins the Rio Grande near Espanola. Communities further north did not have access to that water, so the legislation authorized a dam to be built in Taos County.

The dam was to be sited in the foothills upstream from Ranchos de Taos, along the Rio Grande del Rancho, the stream that runs near the famous St. Francis Church. It would make irrigation water reliable for communities south of Taos, where several hundred households still lived the traditional way, farming a few acres. A channel would run northward, carrying water to Taos.

A federal agency would pay for 96.5 percent of the construction costs, the largest subsidy ever offered for such a project up to that date, which seemed too good to refuse. But the community would have to pay the remaining three percent, plus maintenance costs, and therein lay one reason for mistrust.

The planning documents said the dam wouldn’t need much maintenance work. The costs were estimated to be quite modest, around $34,000 a year. But some small farmers did not trust that figure. And they did not trust that the water would remain theirs. They feared this boon would lead to explosive tourism growth and the water would be diverted from them to industry. Their fears were fomented by Taos-resident novelist John Nichols, who lobbied and wrote articles for their cause.

Legally, a conservancy district would have to be formed to create an entity with taxing power that could administer the project and collect the money. The tax base was the whole community, not just farmers. That would spread both the cost and the political control. Since all taxpayers would have a vote, the farmers feared their representation would be diluted by pro-growth and pro-tourism interests.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, further south, had been formed decades earler. Nichols and others claimed many small farmers in that district had lost their land because they couldn’t pay the assessments. Would this happen in Taos? We didn’t know, and we’ll never find out.

The Taos conservancy district was formed, but the opponents sued. The district’s legal standing was overturned by the court, based on technical irregularities in the formation process. The proponents considered making a second try at forming the district, but ultimately gave up.

Now and then somebody recalls those days and says it’s too bad the project was stopped. All that water would have been such a boon, they say.

So do I. I read about the climate projections and shake my head. This year’s spring runoff has run off. Some of it might have been held back by that dam. In the cool northern foothills, it would lose considerably less to evaporation than Elephant Butte.

One critical difference between this and the Gila project: in spite of the arguments about who would get the water, no one doubted that the water would be there. In the 1970’s, New Mexico had rain.


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