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How much is Abiquiu Lake’s desert shoreline worth?

Ghost Ranch owns the majority of land around Abiquiu Lake. The ranch and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority are in court over how much the ranch should be paid to submerge more of its property as the authority seeks to expand water storage. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Ghost Ranch owns the majority of land around Abiquiu Lake. The ranch and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority are in court over how much the ranch should be paid to submerge more of its property as the authority seeks to expand water storage. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

ABIQUIU – How much is an acre of New Mexico high-desert shoreline worth?

That’s not the start of a joke. In fact, the operators of Ghost Ranch at Abiquiu and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority are battling in court over the value of the ranch’s property around Abiquiu Lake.

The Albuquerque-area water utility, which now keeps its so-called San Juan-Chama water in the man-made lake, wants more storage capacity, which would submerge more land.

But after more than two years in court and talks dating back years before that, the two sides haven’t reached a deal.

Price isn’t the only issue. The biggest disagreement is whether the water utility must compensate Ghost Ranch only for the acreage that would be newly flooded.

Ghost Ranch argues that it also is legally entitled to payment for the much bigger piece of its land that’s been subject to flooding by the lake for decades since construction of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam on the Chama River.

Debra Hepler, Ghost Ranch’s executive director, said while showing off some of the shoreline property recently that the Albuquerque water utility has “basically had a free ride” since it acquired storage space in Abiquiu Lake more than 30 years ago.

“We just want to get our fair share,” said Hepler.

“We’re a nonprofit and we want to do what’s right for future generations,” she added.

The ranch, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, although the church ended direct financial support several years ago, owns more than half of the property around Abiquiu Lake. Across U.S. 84 is the developed Ghost Ranch area, an education, conference and retreat center, and popular site for hikers looking for a dose of O’Keeffe country’s spectacular scenery.

The lawyer for the water authority says its condemnation proceeding is all about arriving at fair compensation for Ghost Ranch’s land.

“The law contemplates a fair-market valuation and, similar to Ghost Ranch, the water authority seeks the court’s determination of a fair-market valuation,” said Nann Winter. “Currently, we don’t agree on what that is.”

The water authority has offered $933,750 for the 415 acres of Ghost Ranch land that would be newly flooded.

Ghost Ranch says a new appraisal came in this month at $3.14 million for the much larger area, about 2,200 acres, that it wants compensation for. That’s way down from an earlier estimate of $9 million that didn’t take into account a flooding easement from the 1950s.

With the new appraisal, “it looks resolvable,” said Winter, speaking this week for the water authority.

But a deal or court decision on condemnation of Ghost Ranch’s land may not end the debate.

Carlos Salazar, whose family owns land at the south end of Abiquiu Lake, near its dam, opposes condemnation of the family property that he said is used mostly for grazing.

“This is going to be a never-ending thing,” Salazar said. As New Mexico’s cities grow and want more space to store more water, “they’re going to have to continually take more land,” he said.

If the lake must expand, Salazar would rather rent the family property than give it up permanently, so there is an annual revenue stream.

“My thing is, the city government in Albuquerque, and the hotels and the other businesses there get richer and richer from this water, but we property owners are left holding the bag. It’s not fair.”

Daniel Manzanares, chief operations officer at Ghost Ranch, and Debra Hepler, executive director, stand on part of the Abiquiu Lake shoreline that would be submerged in plans by the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority to store more water in the lake. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Daniel Manzanares, chief operating officer at Ghost Ranch, and Debra Hepler, executive director, stand on part of the Abiquiu Lake shoreline that would be submerged in plans by the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority to store more water in the lake. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Dam built in 1963

Abiquiu Lake was created for flood control in 1963. At that time, Ghost Ranch sold 162 acres for just $1,600 and the feds acquired a “flowage easement” on another 4,381 acres of ranch property for $16,400.

Much later, Congress authorized storage of 200,000 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama water in the lake. That’s water from the Colorado River basin piped east for use in the Rio Grande drainage. Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Española all have San Juan-Chama rights.

In 1981, Albuquerque and Ghost Ranch entered into a 25-year lease for the storage available in the lake below elevation 6,220 feet, involving roughly 1,770 acres of ranch land.

The rent was paid to Ghost Ranch in water – 300 acre-feet per year, which the water authority says is now worth $30,000 annually. The lease was extended for five years in 2006.

The water authority now would like to use Abiquiu Lake to also store “native” water and wants to expand the lake’s capacity.

The current legal tussle started officially in September 2011, when the water authority filed a complaint in state District Court.

That came after Ghost Ranch rejected initial offers for a lease extension or purchase of a permanent storage easement. Also, Ghost Ranch had decided the authority failed to meet a lease-renewal deadline and that, as of January 2011, Albuquerque was keeping its water illegally in Abiquiu Lake. The two sides eventually agreed on a short-term lease for $125,000 a year through next January.

Now, the legal matter is simply a condemnation proceeding, a determination of how much Ghost Ranch should be compensated for the water authority’s taking of land. The ranch accepts that it can’t oppose condemnation for a legitimate public purpose.

The authority maintains that, since the federal government paid for a flowage easement on Ghost Ranch’s property up to elevation 6,215 feet in the 1950s, the ranch isn’t due additional compensation for that 1,800 acres or so now. It wants to pay $933,00 for another 415 acres to be flooded for new storage.

But Ghost Ranch argues that the 1950s’ flowage easements allowed only temporary inundation for flood control and additional compensation is required for permanent water storage

The ranch’s response cites a 2013 memo by John Stomp, the water authority’s own chief operating officer, which concluded that “the original compensation (temporary inundation) by the Corps did not adequately compensate for water supply (permanent inundation).”

Hepler said the authority wants to take Ghost Ranch’s most valuable land around the lake, used for outdoor activities and films like that latest movie in the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” series.

There’s been talk of lodging with views of the lake and surrounding mountains, but no immediate plans. Hepler and Daniel Manzanares, Ghost Ranch’s chief operating officer, said those most affected by a higher lake would be other property owners, like ranchers who’ll lose grazing area. Manzanares said the lake will rise 18 feet and put water near U.S. 84.

Ghost Ranch’s property around Abiquiu Lake provides views of Cerro Pedernal, the flat-topped peak made famous by artist Georgia O’Keeffe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Ghost Ranch’s property around Abiquiu Lake provides views of Cerro Pedernal, the flat-topped peak made famous by artist Georgia O’Keeffe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Initial offers

The water authority said in its initial court filing that an offer of $1,000 per acre to lakeside owners “had been widely accepted.” The authority now says it has purchased or obtained permanent easements on the majority of the non-Ghost Ranch property on the lake.

Salazar’s family is one of the hold-outs. He says local Hispanic land owners “have already been raped twice – when they built the dam and condemned the property, and when they got the storage space for the water.” He said when land is taken, “they pay pennies on the dollar.”

Without Albuquerque’s stored water, Abiquiu Lake would be a quarter of its current size, with one-tenth of the water, court filings state. The water authority argues the stored water has created a recreational lake and wildlife habitat, provides water for grazing and improves aesthetics.

Salazar said he knows others who don’t want their property condemned and he intends to rally opposition to the water authority’s plans.

Salazar also said water releases from Abiquiu Lake rip out fencing, and wash away livestock and riverside land that’s used for agriculture downstream. “There’s never any compensation,” he said.

State District Judge Sheri Raphaelson has scheduled a motions hearing in the case for May 13.

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