Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

There is a lot at stake for community members in opposition to the Santolina development and they want to be sure that, when they raise their voices in disapproval, they are heard.

The Bernalillo County Commissioners (BCC) Santolina hearing (Zoning Meeting) scheduled for June 28 was originally an in-person meeting only. Community members and their representatives, who have opposed the massive development for over a decade, mobilized phone callers asking for the same treatment for the Santolina hearing as the BCC’s June 21 meeting, which was scheduled online “due to an increase in COVID cases in the state and out of an abundance of caution for the health and safety of county employees and citizens at-large.”

The BCC has since postponed the Santolina hearing until August 16 at 2 pm due to “a lack of quorum and accessibility issues.”

Bernalillo County is about to make a major decision on the latest plans submitted by Western Albuquerque Land Holdings (WALH) for the Santolina property development on Albuquerque’s West Side. At full build-out, the development will be the size of Santa Fe. There are several points of contention around the detrimental aspects of the development for local community members.

Why are the Bernalillo County Commissioners (BCC) hearing the development’s proposed plans at all since the Bernalillo County Planning Commission (CPC) voted on March 2, 2022, to recommend that both plans be denied? Opponents want to know.

The recommendation by the CPC was not appealed. By having Santolina’s plans on the BCC agenda the County would not be following its own procedures, according to Virginia Necochea, Executive Director of New Mexico Environmental Law Center’s (NMELC), who represents the opposition to the development.  

Opponents are urging the BCC to adopt the CPC recommendations and deny Santolina’s Level A Amended Master Plan and the Level BII Master Plan.

The Santolina opposition is asking for neighborhoods built around community resources and cultural life ways. They believe the development supports environmental racism as the beneficiaries are the developers and their shareholders, leaving low-income people of color to bear the brunt of sprawl.

Opposition groups contend the proposed amendments to Santolina’s plans dangle solar/green energy projects as distractions from their “waste disposal” plans which could allow for harmful landfills. They are also calling for a new economic analysis because the original plan relied on outdated projected population and jobs data.

As the Land of Enchantment sits on the edge of drought and a scarce clean water crisis, one of the major complaints about Santolina is the development’s effect on local water shortages. WAHL contends its latest plans won’t require water from the Water Utility Authority (their original water-use approval has expired) and plan to haul water to the area for their amended plans. They haven’t pinpointed how much or where the hauled water will come from.

 “It could be 100 years, or 80 years, or 60 years — we’ve got a limited amount of water,” says Dave DuBois, New Mexico’s state climatologist. “We’ve got these long horizons, but that doesn’t mean we need to blow through that and then figure out what to do.”

Signs of water shortages are everywhere across the state. Reservoirs and state rivers are drastically depleted. Irrigation ditch allotments are diminishing. Monsoon season is here early, but it’s a mere drop in the bucket compared to the water debt – 125,000-to-130,000-acre feet of water… and counting – that the state owes Texas under the Rio Grande Compact.

The Navajo Nation’s springs at To’Hajiilee, located 30 miles from Albuquerque, once had plentiful free-flowing clean water. Of the six wells the village of 2,000 drilled to reach the spring, only one dribbles now. It contains corrosive dissolved solids, looks like orange juice, resembles coffee grounds and smells like rotten eggs. Potable water has been hauled in by residents for the past decade. Rio Puerco, the watershed that lies beneath To’Hajiilee, is completely within the Middle RioGrande Underground Water Basin that feeds Albuquerque.

“Do the To’Hajiilee springs foretell the future of The Rio Grande Basin?” is a question the commissioners might consider as they contemplate Santolina’s amendments. The agenda for the hearing should be posted by 4:30 pm August 12 at http://bernalillocountynm.lgm2.com/citizens/