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Santolina’s water use is a ticking time bomb

The Bernalillo County Planning Commission will soon decide whether it will ignore and jeopardize the region’s water supply as it considers the proposed Santolina development. If the panel makes the wrong decision – to ignore water – and the Bernalillo County Commission approves that decision later this summer, the outcome will jeopardize our region’s public water supply, negatively impact local consumers, and affect taxpayers throughout the state.

Santolina’s proposed annual water use is large – 14,380 acre-feet – roughly equivalent to Rio Rancho’s annual use. At the heart of this controversy lies a question that New Mexicans know is not simple: where will Santolina get the large amount of water it claims to need? Though the developers and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority have a simple answer – from the authority – the truth is not simple. Undisclosed impacts could adversely affect New Mexicans for generations to come.

Bernalillo County’s Planned Communities Criteria require Santolina developers to demonstrate they have adequate physical water and legal rights to it before being eligible for the green light. The developers dodged this requirement in their 2015 “Level A Master Plan” process by promising they would meet the requirement before approval of the Level B Master Plan. Now, at the developers’ request, Bernalillo County is considering approval of the Santolina Level B Master Plan while continuing to ignore water.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the water authority does not have the water rights to supply Santolina. Worse, existing consumptive uses of water in the Middle Rio Grande exceed legal limits. Water availability in the Middle Rio Grande is a zero-sum game: any new use of water requires an equivalent existing use to stop.

The Middle Rio Grande as of April has a water delivery debt on the Rio Grande Compact books for the first time since 1990. Our water use has wiped out a 270,800 acre-foot credit in only 17 years. Still worse, the debt could grow to violate the Rio Grande Compact in 2018, inviting Texas to expand its Supreme Court water under-delivery lawsuit – now limited to New Mexico below Elephant Butte Dam – to engulf the Middle Rio Grande.

Santolina’s new depletions of water would aggravate the Middle Rio Grande’s water budget deficit, the associated trend toward New Mexico’s failure to comply with Rio Grande Compact delivery requirements, and the impacts of non-compliance on the water authority’s water rights portfolio. Those impacts could severely constrain the water authority’s ability to provide water to current customers.

As I testified in 2015, and emphatically repeat, the public and the water utility authority’s existing customers deserve full disclosure of the terms and impacts of providing this large new water service. These disclosures then deserve the informed consideration of the planning commission, the Bernalillo County Commission and the water utility authority before Bernalillo County agrees to Santolina’s proposed land uses or the authority commits to serve any new water demand the size of Santolina.

For the future of our city and our county, I exhort the commission to deny Santolina’s request and require the developers to follow the rules designed to protect our limited water supply. I also urge my neighbors to attend the next planning commission meeting Wednesday, June 7, to demand Santolina’s water supply details be disclosed and fully considered.

Why, I ask, as should you, would the county ignore water?

Norman Gaume is the architect of the 1997 Albuquerque Water Resources Management Strategy calling for full direct use of Albuquerque’s San Juan-Chama water. He served as director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and engineer-adviser to the New Mexico Commissioner, Rio Grande Compact Commission. His 2015 written testimony to the Bernalillo County Commission on the Santolina project is at:


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