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To’hajiilee’s chapter president says he is hopeful the Navajo satellite community has moved closer to getting the new water supply it needs after what he deemed a “productive” meeting with a prominent area landowner.
Mark Begay was among about 35 people who attended a virtual meeting late last week to discuss To’hajiilee’s proposed 7.3-mile water transmission line – a line that would require buying an easement from Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, which owns about 53,000 acres west of Albuquerque. To’hajiilee leaders and elected officials said in a news conference last month that WALH’s unwillingness to negotiate for the past two years was stopping the project from moving forward.
WALH, however, has disputed that characterization. While WALH representatives had in 2018 rebuffed To’hajiilee’s attempts to discuss the easement, they say they are now – and have been – willing to have the conversation. But they say they need additional information and had not received it after asking earlier this year.
It was against that backdrop that Bernalillo County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada’s office arranged last week’s meeting, which also included state legislators, representatives of New Mexico’s congressional delegation and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.
Both To’hajiilee and WALH emerged from the session feeling progress had been made.
“It was a productive meeting and the first time that we actually sat down and discussed all the issues,” said Begay, adding that the parties agreed to meet again in about two weeks. “This is a start.”
He said WALH asked many questions that To’hajiilee and its engineers would try to answer before the next session.
A WALH spokesman said there is a sense of momentum.
“It was a really good meeting, and I think everybody is dedicated now to trying to figure this out by the end of the year. … We – as in WALH – really want to be part of the solution for this whole issue,” spokesman Tom Carroll said. “We just need to have the information to make an informed choice.”
To’hajiilee, located at the western end of Bernalillo County, wants to build a pipeline from ABCWUA’s western-most water tank, but needs an easement from WALH and two other property owners to accommodate the transmission line. To’hajiilee leaders say the pipeline is the best solution to their water supply emergency, as five of the village’s six wells have already failed and the last working well serving the village of about 2,000 is insufficient and unreliable. It has suffered three outages in the past five years – one that lasted two weeks – and produces such poor-quality water that many residents rely on bottled water for drinking.
To’hajiilee officials have said they will pay for the line’s construction and also compensate WALH for the easement and a proportional share of the tank and affiliated infrastructure, which WALH spent about $30 million building and, as required, turned over to the water utility.
The water authority has said it supports the project and that the proposed line would be used to transport to To’hajiilee water already owned by the Navajo Nation.
The other two land owners have also expressed willingness to negotiate with To’hajiilee for easements.
But limited progress with WALH prompted the Bernalillo County Commission to vote this spring to proceed with land condemnation if necessary.
However, WALH representatives say they have not stonewalled To’hajiilee and have been waiting for records they requested in February.
“Without these documents … there’s no way for us to evaluate the proposal,” WALH attorney Paul Kennedy said in a recent meeting with Journal reporters and editors.
They say they need to gauge what immediate and future impacts the proposed water line might have on the water available to WALH developments. Jeff Garrett, president of the company developing the WALH land, said he wanted assurances that the water authority was not applying policy in a “discriminatory” manner by treating WALH different than it did To’hajiilee. They are seeking the project’s water availability and water serviceability letters and the development agreement, which they said they have been required to have in their own past dealings with ABCWUA.
Carroll said such documents have not yet been provided but that related information may be coming following last week’s discussion.