TAOS — After the Chevron Questa mine closed in 2014, the company prepared to divest itself of surplus land and water rights accrued decades ago by the mine’s former owner, Molycorp.
But the state engineer’s office’s denial last month of two requests to transfer water rights – one to an El Rito family hoping to start a small commercial farm and the other to Wild Earth Llama Adventures — has Chevron and Questa officials wondering if their efforts to advance the economy and community development goals are at risk.
Patrick Shaw and his wife, Jennifer Kostecki-Shaw, paid Chevron a down payment for a heavily reduced entitlement to 4 acre-feet of groundwater per year. He said his family was trying to do the right thing by buying commercial water rights before expanding their family farm: it would not be legal for them to use part of their residential water rights to grow food for sale.
“You’re not allowed to sell anything,” Shaw said.
The state engineer’s office denied the Shaws’ request, however, putting the family business on hold.
Ramona Martinez, the agency’s district director, said transfer requests to the Shaws and the llamas company were denied because the water rights in question “simply don’t exist anymore.” They weren’t used after the mine closed, she said.
Chevron knew that the water rights in question were no longer valid, she added.
“Chevron has submitted proof of beneficial use, which means they provide us with documentation of all the water they have used beneficially,” Martinez said. “From 2014 to 2016, they put 1,264 acre-feet per year for beneficial use, and the remaining 1,433 acre-feet was not used for beneficial purposes.”
She said the company asked the engineer’s office to make an exception in 2016 “and recognize those unused acre feet on the grounds that they wanted to be good neighbors and help the community.”
But “we don’t make exceptions,” Martinez said, adding that the basin Taos County sits in is “a fully appropriated basin, which means all water is allocated.”
Chevron said it would appeal state decisions on water rights sales.
“It is Chevron’s belief that the recent denials reflect OSE’s current position, as in May 2020 OSE staff shared with us a draft internal memo arguing that these rights are valid,” Chevron economic development adviser Christian Isely told Questa.
“The reasoning was that ‘circumstances beyond Chevron’s control prevented them from fully utilizing the water rights’,” he added, citing the “permanent closure of the mine in 2014.”
While Chevron’s ongoing mine reclamation projects and Federal Superfund cleanup work require significant amounts of water, the company wants to return excess water to the community, including nine mutual d domestic water and the village of Questa, which for years has consumed more water than its permitted water rights.
“We sold 133 acre-feet [of water rights] to nine mutual associations of domestic water consumers here in the Taos area,” Isely said, “but these applications take forever to be approved.
Martinez said the rights Chevron wants to transfer to national mutual associations are valid.
A big question for Chevron and Questa officials is whether the company will be able to move forward with something that has been talked about for some time: two transfers of water rights to the village itself. , which has accumulated a water debt with the state totaling 1,800 acre-feet.
Chevron wants to offer a one-time $1 lease of 1,800 acre-feet to clear that debt and also donate water rights for 120 acre-feet per year.
“Chevron recognized the need that post mine closure there would be tremendous economic and social impacts, obviously, for jobs, local businesses, tax revenue, etc.,” Isely said. “And so my charge was to help diversify Questa’s economy, and we use a substantial amount of what we call social investing to do that.”
Martinez praised Chevron’s efforts to support Questa.
“If Chevron wants to be a good neighbor and help the Village of Questa and support economic development in Taos County, they should use their 1,263 acre-feet of valid water rights instead of trying to bypass canals and processes. appropriate measures put in place to protect our water resources and the citizens of New Mexico, our water users,” she said, adding that the State Engineer’s Office “does not prejudge applications “.
Isely said the mine needs the 1,263 acre-feet water rights for its ongoing mine restoration and reclamation activities.
Questa Mayor Mark Gallegos, whose term ends on April 1, said his village is in desperate need of additional water.
“If they give us another 1,800 acre-feet, that will give us an even wash and clear our debt,” he said. “Then if they give 120 acre-feet, that would come into our annual usage per year, which would give us the opportunity if the community grows, or, if a hotel or a car wash or a laundromat comes along, we would be able to provide water for them” without adding to the village’s water crisis.
“If we had an additional 120 acre-feet dedicated to the village, we could install an additional well,” Gallegos added. “It would cause less stress on the system to spread it over three wells and maybe two different [depths of the] aquifer. It would give us generational security.
This story first appeared in Taos Newsa sister publication of Santa Fe’s New Mexican.