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Campbell Ranch plan goes before judge

A test well drilled in 2009 on Campbell Ranch land off N.M. 14 north of Frost Road. (Lee Ross/Mountain View Telegram)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A water rights fight over a massive proposed East Mountains development is in front of an Albuquerque judge who will determine whether developers can access more than 110 million gallons of groundwater each year.

The case centers on Campbell Ranch, a proposed “resort lifestyle community” located on N.M. 14 that would include around 4,000 homes, a golf course, retail space and other amenities.

A 2009 application seeking to appropriate water from the Sandia Underground Water Basin for the development’s use was denied by the Office of the State Engineer amid public outcry and opposition from Bernalillo County.

In his denial, the hearing officer wrote “it was reasonable to conclude that there was no unappropriated groundwater available” in the basin to satisfy the request.

Aquifer Science LLC, which was formed specifically to supply water to the development, appealed the decision in 2014, leading to a trial before 2nd Judicial District Judge Shannon Bacon started March 5. It is expected to last 10 days.

But in the years since the OSE sided with those protesting the application, a new state engineer has reversed course, and the office now backs Aquifer Science.

Attorneys for the office did not speak on the first day of the trial but they were seated at the table with attorneys for Aquifer Science, who gave opening statements saying there is enough water to support the development.

“Aquifer Science will demonstrate that it has the best, in fact, in some cases the only, scientific and technical evidence establishing that water is available, that the minimal impacts can be mitigated, that the project is consistent with the conservation of water in New Mexico, and that the project is not detrimental to the public welfare,” said Julie Sakura, an attorney for Aquifer Science.

But attorneys for the county argued that model is unreliable and that the appropriation would impair several nearby wells.

Paul Hultin, who represents several East Mountains residents, said not only is there insufficient water available for the request, but existing levels are on the decline.

“There isn’t any unappropriated groundwater in the Sandias,” he said. “Groundwater levels in the mountains are declining and will continue to decline.”

The Office of the State Engineer previously has denied multiple applications for Sandia basin wells, including one that would have provided water to a community center.

In those cases, the office found that granting the applications could impact existing water rights or the applications had not shown water was available for use.

In addition to the Sandia basin wells, the Campbell Ranch development would draw a similar amount of water from the Estancia basin.