AGUA ES VIDA: Legislation requesting State Engineer to resolve outstanding Questa Mine water rights issue receives strong support at the legislature
Over the past several years, the Questa Economic Development Fund (QEDF) and the Village of Questa (village) have been working diligently to resolve outstanding water rights issues with the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer (NM-OSE).
In 2015, following the closure of the Questa Mine, QEDF and the village completed a comprehensive economic development plan to help the village establish a strong economic future, utilizing mining water rights to help reduce poverty, promote agriculture, improve local food security, enable local manufacturing, and create affordable housing.
Since creating this plan, the village, QEDF, and Chevron have been in negotiating with the Office of the State Engineer (NM-OSE), working to ensure the state engineer recognizes all of the mine’s water rights so the remediation of the Chevron Superfund site can be completed concurrently with a 120-acre feet donation to the village’s municipal water system and sales of 133-acre feet to nine Taos Area Mutual Domestic Water Associations as funded under the Abeyta Settlement.
On March 16, the Senate Conservation Committee heard Senate Memorial Bill 69, sponsored by Senator Bobby Gonzales. The bill formally asks NM-OSE to work with the mine, village, and the QEDF to resolve the water rights issue. The bill was supported by public testimony given by Questa Mayor Ortega, Chevron, Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, QEDF Chair Malaquias Rael, Trout Unlimited, the Llano Community Ditch Association, and local farmer and ranchers.
The bill as drafted recognized that all of the mine’s adjudicated water rights are valid for transfer, change of purpose and environmental remediation. State Engineer Mike Hamman opposed the bill which was subsequently amended by the committee to remove the statement of validity.
In addition to completing the work at the Superfund site while donating water rights to the village, Chevron is also proposing to sell water rights to farmers at above an 80 percent discounted rate to ensure farmers and ranchers can supplement their farms while navigating the ever-increasing impacts of inflation in today’s economy.
Louis Herrera, President of the Llano Community Ditch Association in Questa also spoke in strong support of this bill. “I represent 116 parciantes (water rights owners) and we strongly support the passage of Senate Memorial Bill 69,” he said. “The entirety of the Questa mine’s water rights are valid for transfer, change of use, and for remediation. We want to thank the Questa Mine for selling the water rights at $3,000 per acre foot when they’re selling for $20,000 per acre foot in Taos County, it will benefit our ranchers greatly,” Herrera says.
The Senate Memorial Bill was adopted by the Senate Conservation Committee in an unanimous vote of 5-0. It subsequently went to the Senate Floor where it passed 42-0. A similar bill, House Memorial Bill 84 which was introduced by Representative Joseph Sanchez, was adopted by a unanimous vote by the House 70-0.
In a statement to Questa del Rio News, Chevron Public Affairs Advisor Gabriel Herrera said, “Chevron views the passage of Senate Memorial 69 and House Memorial 84 as significant steps in resolving the matter of the New Mexico Office of State Engineer’s denial of valid water right transfers for the benefit of Questa and surrounding communities. Thank you to both Senator Gonzales and Representative Sanchez for sponsoring and supporting these bills. The fact that both memorials achieved unanimous and bi-partisan support in both houses of the legislature only strengthens Chevron’s resolve to complete environmental remediation of the former mine while also providing water rights for local economic development.”
For readers who are interested in watching the Senate Committee Hearing recording, it can be access here: bit.ly/NMLGX03
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