As northern New Mexicans know, the Village of Questa and surrounding communities have faced considerable challenges in the recent past. For example, the closure of Chevron Mining Inc.’s Questa Mine in 2014 placed a significant burden on the local economy. Despite such challenges, the Village of Questa, the Questa Economic Development Fund, and Chevron have worked together to strengthen our community and economy.
Our efforts have included significant investment in the infrastructure of Questa’s public lands and recreational trails. We have also developed the Questa Business Park to attract new companies, such as Taos Bakes. As a result, Questa businesses have effectively navigated the difficulties associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking to the future, our agricultural economy is primed for growth as surplus Chevron properties are currently being made available for additional development.
Despite these achievements, we now face a new potential challenge. On February 7, 2022, the Village and Chevron were notified that two critical water transfer applications submitted with the Office of the State Engineer (“OSE”) had been denied. These included Application No. RG-544 into SP-1432 into RG-73035, which was submitted to OSE on January 16, 2019, and Application No. RG-544 into SP-1432 into RG-99833, which was submitted on May 7, 2021.
In short, these applications requested approval of the transfer of 7-acre feet of adjudicated water rights from Chevron’s tailing site to potential businesses that wished to develop within the Questa area.
Prior to the submittal of these applications, each potential business seeking water transfers provided proposals to the Questa Land & Water (“QLW”) Board. The QLW Board consists of five local community members whose purpose is to oversee potential water and land sales being considered by Chevron to determine whether the transactions would have an economic benefit to the Questa area. Both applications discussed above were approved by the QLW Board prior to submittal to the OSE. The Village has no reason to believe that either application received public protest nor is the Village aware of any hydrological concerns associated with these water rights.
These denials cause great concern for future economic development efforts in the Questa area. In addition to the applications described above, Chevron has approximately 1,306 acre feet of additional adjudicated water rights that it is willing to transfer via sale within the Questa area for the purpose of spurring economic growth and job production. Furthermore, Chevron has generously approved not only a donation of 120-acre feet to the Village of Questa’s municipal water system, but also a one-time lease of approximately 1,800 acre feet of water to effectively eliminate the Village’s historic over-diversion. This donation will cure the Village’s longtime water woes and pave the way for the Village to come into compliance with OSE requirements for the first time in 50 years.
As a result of the OSE’s denial of the above-described applications, the Village fears that future transfers and Chevron’s planned donation to the Village are now in jeopardy.
As Mayor of the Village of Questa, I urge Governor Lujan Grisham and State Engineer Hamman to further review the applications at issue. After such review, I am confident they will agree that it is not only in the best interest of my community and surrounding areas to approve these applications, but also in accordance with New Mexico legal authority. The approval of these applications by OSE will set a strong precedent that water transfers within New Mexico should remain local and benefit those communities – like Questa – that are most at need.
Mark Gallegos is a Taos County Commissioner.