Life on the eastern slopes of the Sandia Mountains has treated Mark Moll well.
From his 20-acre plot in San Pedro Creek Estates, he can see the Jemez Mountains and watch the snow fall on the slopes of Sandia Peak Ski Area.
“I don’t need to look at anybody, I don’t need to hear anybody,” Moll said. “I can walk out of my house at night and there’s dark black skies with lots of stars and no noise. I can get up in the morning and nine times out of 10, there are sunny blue skies.”
And when it comes to that most precious resource — water — Moll counts himself lucky. His well is 440 feet deep. Sure, its water level drops off by 1 to 2 feet each year, but at least it hasn’t run dry, like some of his neighbors’.
But the future of Moll’s water might well lie in the hands of Bernalillo County District Judge Shannon Bacon when she takes on a nearly decadelong showdown over water rights in the East Mountains.
At stake in the case is a permit that would allow developers of Campbell Ranch, a proposed 3,990-home resort community near Sandia Park, and their corporate partners, to extract about 114 million gallons of well water per year from an aquifer deep beneath the eastern slope of the Sandias.
For Moll and some of the development’s other neighbors, who will face down Campbell Ranch in court, the permit would further tax the region’s already dwindling water reserves — thereby putting existing communities in jeopardy.
“We’re just trying to make sure that there isn’t a huge influx of homes that draw out what water there is,” said Kathy McCoy, a former state representative and Sandia Park resident who is active in a grass-roots coalition called Deep Well Protest. “The necessity for water to support 4,000 homes is astronomical.”
Developers, however, contend there is enough water to support the request — and that they have the modeling from exploratory wells to prove it.
The proposed community, which will be built on the east side of N.M. 14 just north of Frost Road, also includes two golf courses, retail and office space, and recreational facilities.
The coalition, composed of local residents, has partnered with several neighborhood groups in opposing the permit since it was first requested in 2009. McCoy said residents have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the effort.
In a state where water is scarce, the Campbell Ranch case — and others like it — poses important questions for regulators. What is the appropriate balance between protecting existing water rights and promoting development? And what role, if any, should out-of-state speculators play in New Mexico’s water market? It has taken nine years for the matter to see its day in court.
The State Engineer’s Office first heard the case in 2013 and ruled that modeling of groundwater in the Sandia basin showed there was no unspoken-for water to be had.
In its denial, the state engineer cited three other applications for water use since 1987 — all within two miles of Campbell Ranch’s exploratory wells. Each application was denied, either because the applicant couldn’t prove there was available water or because granting the permit would harm existing residents’ water supplies.
In the most recent application in 2004, a community center’s request to access about 10 million gallons per year — less than a tenth the amount Campbell Ranch wants — was denied.
Campbell Ranch is requesting its permit through Aquifer Science LLC, a partnership between developers and out-of-state water-rights developer Vidler Water Co. In court, Aquifer’s lawyers will argue that their own modeling of the fractured landscape shows that water is there for the taking.
“We’ve done the science,” said Greg Bushner, vice president of water resource development at Vidler. “And we’ll let the science dictate what the availability of water would be.”
For Michael Jensen, a spokesman for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, whose lawyers represent the neighborhood group, the fact that Vidler is involved at all is a red flag.
“The structure around Aquifer Science gives the appearance of wanting to gain access to water as the point, rather than building out a luxury development on the East Mountains,” Jensen said.
Carson City, Nev.-based Vidler owns 95 percent of Aquifer Science. Campbell Ranch developers own the remaining 5 percent.
PICO Holdings Inc., the California-based company that wholly owns Vidler, “acquires or develops water rights and water-related assets in Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico,” according to its website. It also owns and operates a water-storage facility near Phoenix.
Aquifer originally applied to extract more than four times as many gallons per year, a request that seemed beyond excessive to Jensen and McCoy, leaving them wondering what the extra water would be used for.
For Vidler’s Bushner, those questions ring hollow.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been unclear about our motives,” he said. Developers “Campbell Farming Corp., they have a very detailed master plan for developing that area.”
State laws are clear on the point, too, he said. A company can’t apply for a permit for one use and then turn around and use the water for something else.
New Mexico’s former state engineer, Scott Verhines, supported Deep Well Protest and the neighborhood groups while he made decisions on New Mexico’s water. But after he left in 2014, the new state engineer, Tom Blaine, backed developers.
“I can’t emphasize enough how upsetting this is that our state engineer is not supporting their original decision,” McCoy said. “We feel like the state engineer’s job is to protect the water of the people of New Mexico.”
A spokeswoman for Blaine, Melissa Dosher-Smith, declined to comment on the specific case but said in cases like this, it all comes down to balance.
“State engineers have balanced the needs for over a century with demands for water for development and the scarcity of New Mexico’s water resources,” she wrote in an email. “Our water code directs the state engineer both to protect existing water rights and to allow unappropriated water to be placed for beneficial use.”
For Moll, the future is too precarious to let development trump conservative stewardship.
“Water in New Mexico is a critical resource already,” Moll said. “And if you look at what any scientist says about climate change … things are going to get worse before they get better.”
Contact Sarah Halasz Graham at 505-995-3862 or email@example.com.