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Letters to the Editor: April 2022


From the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank everyone who came out and voted on March 1. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to serve all of you and the Village as the Mayor of Questa. I really appreciated the opportunity to get out and talk to most of you over the last couple of months. I heard your concerns and listened to all your feedback. I look forward to working with all of you and making Questa a better place for all of us and for the future.
One of my first priorities will be bringing back our own law enforcement. I believe that to be the number one need for the Village currently. Public safety, working with the youth, economic development and repair of critical infrastructure will also remain big priorities. I will work hard to serve all of you as the Mayor and keep an honest, open, and transparent Village Office.
I encourage public participation in the Village meetings and hope to see all of you at the Village Meetings which are held the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of every month at the Village Council Chambers.
Again, thank you all for all your support and confidence in me to serve the community. My door will always be open, and I will always listen to your needs and concerns. I would also like to thank all my family and friends who helped me throughout my campaign and on election day and night. I want especially to thank my fiancé Maggie for all her support and allowing me to serve. This wouldn’t have been possible without all your support and help.

Thank You,
John Ortega

Dear Editorial Board:

This letter is in response to an article printed in this publication on March 9 that asserts that the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer (NMOSE) is standing in the way of economic development in Taos County. The article presents a skewed view of Chevron’s water rights holdings and its intentions in the community. More importantly, the article fails to include the basic facts of water law and the rules and regulations, put in place to protect New Mexico’s water resources and its water users, that govern water rights and transfers.

In the article, Chevron asserts that it holds 1,433 acre feet of water rights that it wishes to share with the community for the purposes of economic development in the area where Chevron’s closure of the Questa Mine created challenges for local residents. It refers to two recently denied applications that requested water rights transfers to local commercial operations representing a total of 7 acre feet (4 acre feet to the Shaw family and 3 acre feet to the Wild Earth Llama Ranch). It also mentions Chevron’s intentions to donate 120 acre feet to the Village of Questa municipal water system and a $1 lease of approximately 1,800 acre feet from Chevron to the Village. The article makes no mention of the regulated process of water rights transfers, potential impacts to the fragile hydrology of the area, or the years of close coordination between Chevron and the NMOSE regarding the water rights in question.

To put the complete facts of the situation in the simplest terms, the NMOSE’s Water Rights Division denied the two applications because the particular water rights Chevron is offering are not proven and valid water rights, because they were never put to beneficial use. Beneficial use is the basis of water rights administration in New Mexico. Article XVI, Section 3 of the State Constitution dictates that “Beneficial use shall be the basis, the measure and the limit of the right to the use of water.” If water rights that have never been put to beneficial use are allowed to be transferred, the new uses are new depletions on the system and, when aggregated, could jeopardize the exercise of existing water rights. The NMOSE uses advanced hydrologic models to determine water availability and potential impairment and detriment to existing rights. Chevron does have 1,263 acre feet of valid water rights that can be successfully transferred; however, the corporation is not offering those valid water rights to support local economic development. Chevron is well aware of the reality of its valid and non-valid water rights after years of close coordination with the NMOSE following the termination of the mining and milling operations and the corporation’s efforts to divest its surplus water rights. It is concerning that Chevron has chosen to address this matter in the court of public opinion rather than through official channels and in accordance with the law. That Chevron would mislead people in dire need of water into thinking that they could acquire water rights the corporation knows are not valid is disappointing.

The NMOSE commends Chevron’s attempts at being a good neighbor and is not standing in the way of the corporation transferring its valid water rights. The NMOSE is proactive in encouraging water conservation throughout the state, especially as drought conditions become more severe as a result of climate change, and the agency recognizes that adding additional depletions to an already strained system is not a sustainable model. Rather than proposing to transfer water rights that do not exist an unsustainable strain on the system, Chevron could invest in the outdated and inefficient municipal water infrastructure in the Village of Questa that contributes to the Village’s large water debt. Such an investment would solve the Village’s water debt problem and provide the long-term benefit of efficient and sustainable water use for years to come.

John T. Romero, P.E.
Director Water Resources
Allocation Program
New Mexico Office of the State Engineer

Chevron appreciates the insight on the State Engineer’s position that is provided in the letter of March 17, 2022, to the Questa Del Rio News. The letter does not, however, recognize the unique nature of these particular water rights. These rights were previously put to full beneficial use and, consequently, adjudicated in the Red River Adjudication. In addition, the rights were subsequently limited for Chevron’s use by the State Engineer until the year 2127. Chevron will be pursuing its remedies through the administrative process available under state law, wherein the State Engineer may reconsider the denials to transfer these water rights to local businesses and residents. In the meantime, Chevron will continue its efforts as a good corporate citizen to promote the economic and environmental health of Questa and the surrounding communities.

Christian Isely
Chevron Public Affairs Advisor

[From the editor: Chevron shared with us an internal draft memo from the Office of State Engineer. It dates from May 2020 and reveals that at that time, the agency considered Chevron’s 1,433 future use rights as valid and transferable.]

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
Outgoing Mayor of the Village of Questa and Taos County Commissioner.

The Milagro Beanfield Mural (Questa Del Rio News Arts & Culture, March 2022) actually traces back to my first meeting Joe Cisneros at Questa Ancianos in 2016. Jody insisted then that John Nichols had based his Joe Mondragon character and workshop in Milagro Beanfield War on Jody and his workshop. I read and watched what John Nichols had to say about Joe Mondragon’s origins, and Jody was indeed telling the truth. I decided then to help Jody share his Milagro Beanfield War story, figuring this additional feather in Questa’s cap could help attract more tourism here. The David Vedoe mural I commissioned on Andy Martinez’s shop wall above NM 522, south of downtown Questa memorializes Jody while getting word out on one of his many, many stories.

Though I spoke with editors at both Taos News Tempo and Questa Del Rio News, Jody’s inspiration of Milagro Beanfield War’s Joe Mondragon character didn’t appear in either outlet. This is very frustrating for me since it is the story I want out. Beyond not mentioning Jody, Tempo said that the mural was an homage to John Nichols. John can be forgiven for thinking Jody’s mural was about him, and will surely support getting Jody’s story out when he reflects on how much Milagro meant to Jody. Any difference of opinion about whether Questa will benefit or not from getting out Jody’s Milagro Beanfield War story will resolve itself when the story gets out and people see how the public responds to knowing this interesting fact about Questa.

—Mark White

Thank you, Mark, We apologize for leaving Joe Cisneros out of the conversation. It is our understanding that there has never been any question about whether Joe Cisneros helped inspire Nichols’ Joe Mondragon character. John Nichols has respect for and good memories for Jody.