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.

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Santolina’s solar arrays, wind turbines and tire recycling plant were approved by the Bernalillo County Commissioners Tuesday at their zoning meeting. It looks like “Culligan Man” is the new water source for the development’s 630-acre industrial business park located next to their Santa Fe size housing development. The development has been sidestepping the New Mexico Water Authority for years after their original permit expired as they fought members of the Albuquerque community through the court system this past decade.

By approving the Santolina’s Level A Plan amendment and adopting their Level BII Plan, the commissioners ignored the recommendation to deny the Santolina amendments by their own vetting body – the County Planning Commission. Some of the piecemeal development projects presented at the zoning meeting Wednesday night were the first time many community members said they were hearing about them.

Community members spoke to the commissioners online, in person and via telephone voicing their concerns about water, transportation and increased traffic, and the fact that many of the services, including roads needed for the development, will be paid for by taxpayers. Several speakers were moved to tears as they spoke about the river and how it has run dry for the first time in 40 years. Several pleaded with commissioners to deny Santolina’s amendments.

Water expert Norm Gaume told commissioners “In the Level A Master Plan that is before you, Santolina has chosen to replace the water and sewer drawings doubling down on concepts which the Water Utility Authority expressly disapproved. Four years have elapsed and no application has been made to the Water Utility Authority by Santolina so this is all a ‘House of Cards'”.

Gaume is a retired water engineer who served as manager of the City of Albuquerque Water Resources, Director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and an engineering advisor to The Rio Grande Compact Commission. He previously testified about water issues with Santolina to the Rio Grande Compact Commission in 2015.

Where’s the Water Coming From?

Jim Strozier spoke on behalf of Santolina developers, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings (WALH) saying the proposed amendment to water use restrictions for the industrial projects included no wells on the property, no Water Authority infrastructure and will depend on hauled water.

“Hauled water, nonpotable for dust and fire suppression and potable water for employees, will be provided by a service provider like Culligan,” Strozier said.

The tire recycling plant will have tires transported in from around the state that will be shredded and then sent out of state to be used for building roads, Strozier explained. WALH estimated their Plan BII would use much less water in the industrial park than what was originally anticipated in Santolina’s Level A Plan.

Commission Chair Adriann Barboa said she felt people in the community were misinformed about the water uses for the plan and explained that she supported the amended plans because it was “about recycling tires and because the plan was not to tap into the water infrastructure.” She said she wished that the developers had done more to inform the community about what this vote was about so the public could have been prepared and not misinformed.

Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, who didn’t support Santolina’s original Master Plan A, said the “amendments were preferable to what was originally planned.”

Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada supported the development amendment which he said put “jobs first, which you must have before you can build anything else as a way to fix traffic problems.”

Vice Chair Walt Benson said his “family and friends in Albuquerque have moved out of state because we don’t have development. It’s not a development that drained our water resources.”  

 Commissioner Charlene Pyskoty was absent.

The Paper. spoke with Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Center for Social Sustainable Systems (CESOSS) after the voting. “Santolina is not gone, it just means that they’re creating what the developers see as something that people will accept,” Garcia said. “There will be 30,000 houses built there sometime in the future. It is a big problem because we do not have the water.”

“Our commissioners are not people who are really thinking long term. They’re thinking about the here and now and the immediate benefit of building an undeveloped area of the city,” Garcia said. “The commissioners are relying on the business sector to tell them exactly what to do and how to do it. They are still planning as if we have all the water in the world to do whatever we want.”

Virginia Necochea, a founding member of Contra Santolina Working Group posted “What felt most devastating, disappointing, and hurtful to many community members was hearing commissioners who have positioned themselves as community advocates make statements applauding the developers for their “smart planning,” while offensively stating that the community and public were misinformed.”

“Many of us attending the hearing felt gaslighted and disrespected, the justifications and rationale made in approving these Santolina amendments were misleading,” said Necochea.

So What’s Next?

A Santolina Plan C is now in the works as the solar array, wind turbines, battery storage, solid waste management facility and tire recycling plant would require a site plan before getting a building permit from the New Mexico Environmental Department.

Stockpiles of tires are considered hazardous because of the methane gas they release, as well as other toxic materials. If tires are in contact with the soil without a barrier, it can pose a great risk to groundwater.

“Is another landfill and tire recycling plant the legacy that should be left for this land and community?“ Necochea asked. “Although our disappointment runs deep we will continue to stay in the battle,” she said.