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January 2023

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Chevron Disputed Water Rights Transfers

UPDATE FROM CHRISTIAN ISELY, CHEVRON’S PUBLIC AFFAIRS ADVISOR


The former Questa Mine’s water rights have been in the news this year. We’ve reported on this story as have other media outlets. Here is an update with Christian Isely of Chevron.


Could you please provide us an update of where things stand regarding Chevron’s local water rights transfers?


Chevron still intends to continue with the sale of three acre-feet to Wild Earth Llama Adventures and four acre-feet to Patrick Shaw. Chevron also intends to donate 120 acre feet of water rights to the Village of Questa and to sell 133 acre-feet to nine Taos area mutual domestic water associations under the Abeyta Settlement.


Unfortunately, we are unable to proceed with these transfers at this time due to the recent position taken by the Office of the State Engineer (OSE) that 1,433 acre feet of Chevron’s local water rights are “invalid” or “non-existent.” This decision reduced the total amount of water rights Chevron has available for its environmental remediation work and for divestment in support of our community partners in Questa and Taos County.


Chevron is continuing to engage in good-faith negotiations with the OSE and we are hopeful that they will recognize the validity of all of Chevron’s adjudicated local water rights. Chevron would then be in a position to proceed with the permanent transfers cited above. In the meantime, Chevron is working with the Village of Questa and the Taos area mutual domestic water associations to explore options of leasing water for $1 on an annual basis in order to help them meet their immediate needs.


When do you expect this to be resolved?


Unfortunately, that is very difficult to predict. If Chevron has to resort to litigation, it may take years. However, we hope a solution may be negotiated quickly without litigation for the benefit of the residents of the Village of Questa and Taos County. If we could proceed with these transfers, our local partners could begin planning their economic futures based on a greater availability of water rights. A delay of years could significantly set back local economic development.


You talk about economic development. What is water’s role in that?


Water is fundamental to the economy. Water is required for residential use, commercial use including light manufacturing, retail use especially in food preparation, agriculture, construction, and renewable energy. If Questa is to grow economically, it must have the water rights to do so. Without it, the economy will eventually stagnate, especially once our environmental remediation activities at the mine cease.


How has Chevron worked with the Village of Questa on the use of water related to economic development?


When the mine closed in 2014, the Village of Questa and the Questa Economic Development Fund immediately identified water rights in the 2015 Questa Economic Development Plan as a key component of the community’s future. Chevron listened. We immediately began working with them to safeguard water rights for Questa. For example, Chevron agreed to place a deed restriction on local water right sales preventing them from being transferred outside the Questa area for 75 years. This also resulted in a discounted price of $3,000 per acre foot which made the water far more affordable for local farmers and ranchers. (The market price in Taos County is $16,000 per acre-foot or more.)


Chevron values the communities where we operate. That’s not just a corporate statement made for public consumption. It reflects Chevron’s true culture of working with our local partners and caring about the issues confronting them. Access to water rights is one of Questa’s and indeed one of Taos County’s greatest issues. And even though the monetary value at stake is large, let’s set that aside for a moment as we look at water’s true value.


Water is a very unique asset and renewable resource in the western part of the United States and especially in New Mexico. Unlike access to financial capital which can always be accessed via legislative appropriations, grant opportunities, local tax revenues, and private sector investment, the access to water resources can be lost forever if water rights are made unavailable or transferred out of an area. Once water rights leave Questa and Taos County, they likely will never come back. Chevron understands this. This is why we support the community 100% on this issue.


How can Questa and surrounding communities partner with Chevron on these efforts?


They already are. There are countless folks playing key roles. Just to name and thank a few:
Questa Mayor John Ortega has been key in outreach to other elected officials and state agencies in New Mexico. He supported the recent Dia de las Acequias benefit concert in Questa which further highlighted water rights and water resource management.


Former Questa Mayor and current Taos County Commissioner Mark Gallegos worked closely with Chevron to determine the Village of Questa’s current and future water rights requirements. This enabled Chevron to proceed with our water rights donations and leases to the village.


Questa Economic Development Fund Chairman Malaquias Rael continues to provide leadership on several projects including agriculture, all of which require water. The QEDF’s support for this newspaper has provided the community a very important avenue for public discourse on this topic.


Local event promoter Jamie Archuleta from JA Productions brought the local Dia de Las Acequias benefit concert to fruition thereby commemorating and supporting our local acequias as effective stewards of our water resources. Thank you also to everyone else who helped organize the event and also to those who attended!


Tied to water, we have seen recent reporting about the use of water for green energy, including green hydrogen. What can you tell us about that?


While I cannot speak directly to potential commercial activity related to renewable energy at this time, I do want to reiterate that Chevron will continue to make surplus land and water rights associated with the former Questa Mine available for the economic development of the Village of Questa and surrounding communities.


Beyond renewable energy, it is good to see the Village of Questa thinking ahead to the future and exploring potential uses of water. It took just 66 years between the first sustained flight of an airplane to humanity’s landing on the moon. While there are many innovative uses for water currently in development, how can one predict what uses may exist in 50 to 100 years time? Questa and other rural communities are wise to think in such long term time horizons. All the more reason for them to keep their water rights local for future generations.


What is the greatest overall challenge regarding water rights?


Some would say there are many technical, legal, and policy challenges that require technical, legal, and policy solutions. I will venture a far simpler idea: There are not enough people going into water related fields such as water engineering, water rights law, and water policy. We need more people to consider these fields as serious career options. More related programs need to be offered at the high school and university levels. Water resource management will only increase in importance in the decades to come as water demand increases. We need the generational capacity and brain power to meet this challenge. In my opinion, that is the greatest opportunity to make the most impactful and lasting change on this topic.
Christian Isely is a Public Affairs Advisor at Chevron and he can be reached at the following e-mail: cisely@chevron.com

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