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County offers deal for water pipeline easement

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Bernalillo County has made a formal offer to the landowner some say is blocking a new water pipeline into To’hajiilee, the Navajo Nation satellite community at the county’s western edge.

County Manager Julie Morgas Baca on Wednesday wrote Jeff Garrett, who represents Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, with an offer to purchase an easement from WALH for its recently appraised value of $4,200.28 per acre.

The offer – which equals about $30,200 for the 7.19 acres in question – expires at 5 p.m. Friday.

To’hajiilee representatives say the Navajo Nation, not the county, would ultimately foot the bill for a purchase if a deal is formalized.

A WALH spokesman on Thursday called the letter a “surprise” but said the company is reviewing it and would respond by the deadline.

It’s just the latest development in To’hajiilee’s yearslong attempt to resolve what officials have deemed a water crisis.

Five of six wells for the community of about 2,000 have now failed. Officials say the final remaining well is insufficient to serve the entire village and produces water of such poor quality that many residents rely on bottled water for drinking. The water is also corrosive enough to damage well components, and there have been three service outages in the past five years.

The village’s plan to build a pipeline requires easements from three property owners, including WAHL, but attempts to negotiate with WALH have not produced a deal.

“Unfortunately, the parties have been unable to agree on just compensation as discussions with WALH have not been fruitful or evinced any speedy path towards a resolution to To’hajiilee’s water problems,” Morgas Baca wrote in her letter. She added that COVID-19 has “exacerbated” the situation’s urgency.

Morgas Baca sent a similar letter to another of the three property owners, Sunset Ranch Partners, but a To’hajiilee representative said they have had promising discussions with that group. The village already has a deal for the third easement.

Morgas Baca did not detail the county’s next move should WALH reject her offer, though the county has authority to condemn the land via eminent domain. In fact, the county commission earlier this year directed the county attorney to go that route if necessary.

Debbie O’Malley, the county commissioner who represents To’hajiilee, said she would like to see the county “put WALH on notice” by issuing a condemnation letter should the landowner reject the pending offer.

“That does not mean we would go to court if both sides could come up with a mutually acceptable agreement,” she said in a statement, but added that she wants no “further delays” in getting water to To’hajiilee.

“They have waited long enough. If WAHL would have shown some compassion when first asked to meet with To’hajiilee, this community would have water today.”

To’hajiilee’s proposal calls for a 7.3-mile water transmission line from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s westernmost tank. The utility has already voiced support for the new line, which officials say would convey only water owned by the Navajo Nation.

When To’hajiilee representatives first reached out to WAHL in 2018 to try opening negotiations, a WAHL representative responded that it had “reviewed (the) request and is not interested in pursuing discussions for such an easement.” Subsequent contacts also failed to generate a deal.

WALH representatives have denied stonewalling To’hajiilee, saying they have been willing to talk and had even requested additional details earlier this year.

In August, Bernalillo County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada convened a task force to facilitate discussions between the parties. State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, has since taken over the meetings.

Tom Carroll, a spokesman for WALH, said Ivey-Soto had been close to securing a settlement agreement prior to Morgas Baca’s letter, though a To’hajiilee representative called the task force “a sham” and said the village is not aware of any nearly finished deal.

“They (must have) been negotiating with another group called To’Hajiilee. I have no idea what they’re taking about,” said Robert Apodaca, a consultant working on the To’hajiilee project.

Carroll would not provide specific details of the proposal, but O’Malley said Ivey-Soto this week discussed a $2 million idea with county attorneys.

It calls for the Navajo Nation to turn over $2 million it has in federal coronavirus relief money – money that must be spent by Dec. 30 – to either the county or the water authority, which would then transfer it to WALH. The landowner would use the money to improve other water system infrastructure, according to O’Malley’s summary of the proposal.

Ivey-Soto – who did not dispute that characterization of the proposal – told the Journal that he is a “mediator” in this situation and not an official representative for any party. However, he said he has not yet had any one-on-one conversations with To’hajiilee representatives.

He also stressed that the $2 million discussion “was not presented as a final offer or a ‘take it or leave it.'”

“This was ‘Here’s an opening salvo. Do you have to say anything back? Is there anything else we should be considering?'” he said.

Hours later, he said, the county sent the letter to WAHL with the $30,000 offer.

To’hajiilee Chapter President Mark Begay said the community is hoping the county can resolve the situation. He said time is of the essence due to the deadline to spend the relief money and because the village is in the midst of a COVID-19 surge.

“My only initiative is just getting that waterline to our community, and I don’t see what the problem is,” Begay said.

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