Monday, March 27, 2023

East Mountain Citizens Win 14-Year Battle To Protect Water from Developers

Status of 4,000 home Campbell Ranch development now unknown


East Mountain residents won a 14-year fight to protect their domestic water wells this week when New Mexico Court of Appeals Court affirmed a District Court decision denying an application for a new groundwater appropriation by a company that sells water to commercial developers. East Mountain homeowners banded together to hire lawyers and expert witnesses to defeat an application for a new groundwater appropriation to supply the massive proposed Campbell Ranch 4,000-home and golf course development in the Edgewood and Sandia Park area.

The water conflict began in 2009, when Aquifer Science, a Nevada-based water company formed to obtain water for the Campbell Ranch development, a master planned community spread among Bernalillo, Sandoval and Santa Fe Counties, north of the Town of Edgewood. 

Edgewood has already annexed portions of the area into the town and in 2021 approved an amendment to the 2002 plans for 3 of 4 future “villages” in the massive development. The 2021 approval was eventually sent back to the commission for a rehearing after then-Attorney General Hector Balderas raised concerns about compliance with the state’s Open Meetings Act. It was reapproved in September 2021 after another two-day hearing.

The initial hearing extended over two days with more than 200 residents and experts participating. Many raised concerns about the availability of water and suitability of the project. The project would take 10 to 20 years to build and include 4,000 households clustered in 4 “villages” buffered by open space and two golf courses, CEO Robert Gately told the Edgewood planning and zoning commission in 2021. One golf course was eventually removed by the planning commission, according to prior reporting in The Independent. The final “village” in the plan lies in Bernalillo County which has taken no action on the project.

At the time, Bernalillo County planner Dan McGregor testified to Edgewood planners that although the county recognizes Edgewood’s jurisdiction over most of the master-planned area, “Bernalillo County does not yield or subrogate its own jurisdictional authorities or duties over the areas west of Hwy. 14 and referred to as Village 1 or alternately as the Triangle Ranch. Bernalillo County also respectfully submits to the Town of Edgewood council that Bernalillo County has never approved the Campbell Ranch Master Plan either in whole or in part.”

McGregor said Bernalillo County first reviewed the same master plan in 2000 before the area was annexed by Edgewood, when Campbell approached the new town for approval after that annexation. At that time, the same concerns about water and suitability for the area were raised.

“If we can’t ever get water for 4,000 homes, then 4,000 homes will never be built,” Gately told The Independent in 2021. But the company’s initial request to appropriate 1,500 acre-feet of water was eventually reduced to just over 700 acre-feet which was denied by the state engineer on the grounds that there was no unappropriated ground water in the Sandia Basin to reallocate. Court documents reviewed by The Independent detail that the company later reduced that request to 350 acre-feet, or about 114,000,000 gallons, after acquiring other water rights, though there are no details on where or how those rights were acquired. That reduction eventually won approval from the state engineer but was still opposed by residents who eventually prevailed in District Court and, last month, in the state Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals Decision affirmed the decision by the District Court that the new appropriation would impair existing domestic wells and was not consistent with the conservation of declining groundwater in the area. Aquifer Science did not pursue a further appeal to the Supreme Court, leaving the district court decision in place.

The average household uses about 110,000 gallons of water per year, according to the EPA. At that calculation, the approved 350 acre-feet appropriation could have supported approximately 1,000 households, or one village in the development.

Residents, organized by the San Pedro Creek Estate Homeowners and the Deep Well Protest (a local community non-profit), with support from Bernalillo County and the Environmental Law Center, raised more than $750,000 for legal and expert fees since 2009, according to a statement by Deep Well Protest. 

Mark Moll of San Pedro Creek Estates commented: “The community is both thrilled and relieved that we have finally won this long battle to protect our wells.” 

Paul Hultin, one of the attorneys who represented the homeowners, said: “This case was about protecting our clients’ wells and New Mexico’s precious and life sustaining water.”

As a result of the case, the Campbell Ranch area is also protected from new groundwater applications except for domestic wells, say attorneys involved. After the 2018 District Court trial, the Office of the State Engineer analyzed declining groundwater levels in the area and issued an order in 2021 closing the area to new commercial applications to protect the groundwater of the Sandia Underground Water Basin and a portion of the Rio Grande Underground Water Basin.

While technically limited to parts of Santa Fe, Bernalillo and Sandoval Counties, attorneys for the residents say the Court of Appeals decision is a state-wide precedent that will protect groundwater throughout the state.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here