The Village of Questa and surrounding communities in northern Taos County have faced many challenges over the decades. There is no doubt that the closure of the Questa Mine by Chevron Mining Inc. (“Chevron”) in Questa Mine in 2014 presented an immediate and future challenge to continued economic growth. But Questa met that challenge. With the recruitment of Taos Bakes, the subsequent development of the Questa Business Park, continued river restoration activities, support for local businesses, and the creation of the Questa Land & Water Board to promote the divestment and economic development of surplus Chevron properties, Questa is well placed to build on its successful track record of economic growth and job creation.
Unfortunately, our economic future is now at risk due to two recent decisions by the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer (NMOSE) as led by the new State Engineer, Mr. Mike Hamman, who is from Taos.
The first decision, made on February 7, 2022, was to deny the application to transfer 3 acre feet of water rights from the Chevron tailings site to the Wild Earth Llama Ranch, an eco-tourism and animal rescue operation looking to irrigate pastureland and offer a visitor experience. The ranch is located in El Rito, a few miles north of Questa. The community-led Questa Land & Water Board (QLWB) recommended Chevron proceed with the transfer. The application was submitted to the NMOSE on January 16, 2019. There were no public protests and Chevron even assisted with completing hydrology studies for the transfer.
The second decision, also made on February 7, was to deny the application to transfer 4 acre feet from the tailings site to Patrick Shaw and Jennifer Kostecki-Shaw, a local couple in El Rito wishing to expand organic local food production to address local food security needs and to serve as a center to teach and support organic gardening and permaculture. The QLW Board also recommended this transaction to Chevron. It was submitted to the NMOSE on May 7, 2021 and there were no public protests.
These two transactions represent only 7 acre feet out of up to 1,433 acre feet Chevron wishes to provide for economic development, including an upcoming donation of 120 acre feet to the Village of Questa municipal water system. This donation will be coupled with a one-off $1 lease of approximately 1,800 acre feet from Chevron to the Village to clear up the Village’s historic over-diversion of water. All of this meets the Village’s 40-year water plan as required by NMOSE. The donation and lease transfers will be submitted shortly to the NMOSE for approval. But are these plans now also at risk of being denied by the state?
It is worth noting that Chevron is placing a deed restriction on transfers of these 1,433 acre feet. After a transfer, the new owner cannot transfer the water rights out of the Questa area (the Village of Questa, Cerro, Buena Vista, (the Village of Questa, Cerro, Buena Vista ,a community near Cerro and what is now the Questa Airport, El Rito, Costilla, and Amalia) El Rito, Costilla, and Amalia) for 75 years. This resulted in a discounted market price of $3,000 per acre foot versus $16,000 to $20,000 in Taos County as a whole. What happens to these rights if they cannot be transferred as the community (and Chevron) intends? Will they be appropriated by the state? Will they be moved out of our community?
If history is any guide, the outlook is grave. The federal government did not honor the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and recognize the San Antonio del Rio Colorado land grant. As a result, most of the land surrounding Questa is owned by the federal government. Fortunately, our community has been able to work productively with the BLM and US Forest Service to continue community access to these lands.
But water is not land. If and when it is ever moved south or otherwise made unavailable, it will likely never return.
That would seal the fate of our community for generations to come. How is the Village expected to provide water to residents and businesses? How are local farmers expected to improve food security for our community members in need? What good is all the available Chevron surplus land without access to water?
Questa has turned the economic corner after the mine shut down. But that victory and our future is now in danger of drying up, literally.