Santolina Decision Overlooks Water Scarcity

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The Sandia Mountains and the Rio Grande -Photo taken by Erich Schlegel

By Paula Garcia, Executive Director of NMAA

Santolina cleared another hurdle on August 30, 2017 when the Bernalillo County Commission approved the Level B master plan on a 3-2 vote. The development has been controversial with opponents mounting a years-long campaign against approval of the master plan over questions about water, taxes, and infrastructure. Along with the South Valley Regional Acequia Associations, local neighborhood organizations, and other community organizations, the NMAA has expressed concern about the Santolina development because of the potential impacts to the water resources of the Middle Rio Grande and related impacts to the historic acequias.

  1. The Commission is not adhering to their policy in the county’s Planned Communities Criteria that applicants for new developments demonstrate the availability of physical water and legal rights to that water. The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Use Authority (ABCWUA) has not been required to provide details of the water rights available to supply the new development.
  2. By not diligently confirming the availability of water rights, the county is deferring the impacts of water rights acquisition and transfer. They are approving land use without being certain that the water rights can and will be required and instead they are assuming that the water rights can be obtained at some point in the future. This can also be referred to as “kicking the can down the road.”
  3. Delayed impacts are still impacts. In a fully appropriated basin, which means all the known water rights are owned by someone, any new uses of water must come at the expense of existing uses. This is also referred to as a “zero sum game.” In the western United States, water rights for new development are usually transferred out of agriculture, eroding the greenbelt and farmland. This is one way that acequias will be negatively impacted. Water transfers threaten to unravel acequias through a piecemeal dismantling of the water and members that comprise the community-based systems.
  4. Santolina, and developments like it, will exacerbate the long-term depletion of the aquifer of the Middle Rio Grande Valley. Since aquifers are connected to their rivers, the Rio Grande will be affected by groundwater depletion and will also suffer depletion. Less water in the river will affect all agriculture in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. Pueblos with prior and paramount rights and acequias next in line in seniority will be impaired.

Each individual water right that is transferred to the ABCWUA is required to go through a statutory approval process in which impairment of water rights should be considered. The State Engineer assesses impairment. And while the transfer of one surface water right to an ABCWUA well may not be deemed impairment by the state, it is undeniable that the collective impact of transferring 14,000 acre feet of additional water rights to the ABCWUA wells would have an impact on agriculture, farmland, acequias, and the river.

Rio Rancho and Albuqueruqe are drawing down the aquifer beneath them. The San Juan Chama project serves to provide the City of Albuquerque with a surface source of water to prevent over-dependence on the aquifer. But that surface water diversion is only supplying a fraction of the needs of the city and the pumping of groundwater is ongoing.

The facts surrounding water rights, groundwater depletion, and impairment of water rights are inconvenient to policymakers who are pressured to approve new developments. In last night’s Santolina hearing, proponents hailed “planning” as their hallmark and urged commissioners to reward their efforts by approving their “plan.” Thankfully, two of the commissioners, O’Malley and Hart-Stebbins, withheld their support. There is no thoughtful plan for how to acquire the water rights. Developers simply expect the ABCWUA to go out and buy water rights from irrigated land without consideration of the impacts to the broader community and the historic farmlands and irrigation systems of the acequias and the Pueblos.

Without a thorough plan, land use decisions are happening based on undisclosed impacts and insufficient information. Before approving a new development, policymakers should be presented with data to show the costs of a new development in terms of aquifer depletion and agricultural acres and greenbelt lost. With better information about these impacts, policymakers would undoubtedly make better decisions and our cities, towns, and villages would be more equitable and sustainable.