The year is winding down and there has been a lot happening here in Valencia County. 

From a visit by the commander in chief to zoning and water battles, it’s never dull around here. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest stories from 2023. 

President Joe Biden visited Valencia County 

Whether you consider him “your” president or not, having a sitting president visit the county for the first time is newsworthy. 

U.S. President Joe Biden paid a visit to Valencia County on Wednesday, Aug. 9, to tout the progress of his 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. Signed into law in 2022, the IRA makes a commitment to build a new clean energy economy, focused on American innovators, workers and manufacturers, with the priorities of creating union jobs and cutting pollution.  

Biden delivered comments to a small crowd of invited local, state and federal officials and community members at the Arcosa Wind Towers facility in the Rio Grande Industrial Park, south of Rio Communities, which came to the county in March. 

The act promises $370 billion in investments that will lower energy costs for families and small businesses, accelerate private investment in clean energy solutions in every sector of the economy and every corner of the country, strengthen supply chains for everything from critical minerals to efficient electric appliances and create good-paying jobs and new economic opportunities for workers.  

Niagara’s request for more  water resurfaced 

After more than a year of silence, Niagara Bottling Company again approached the Los Lunas Village Council seeking to expand its production capabilities and requesting an increase to how much water it is allowed to pump from village wells.  

Since the company began bottling water in Los Lunas in 2017, it has been limited to 285 acre-feet per year, almost 93 million gallons annually.  

In an amended agreement, Niagara asked for access to 782 AFY, which amounts to more than 254 million gallons per year. 

When the company first asked for increased capacity in 2022, residents rallied against the company, with the watchdog group Valencia Water Watchers forming. After several council meetings, always packed full of those protesting the increase, the amended agreement was indefinitely tabled in July 2022 to allow more time for the village’s water consultants to review the agreement. 

During the Dec. 7 meeting, it came to light that Niagara has routinely exceeded its allotted amount of water, with Los Lunas Public Works Director Michael Jaramillo saying there were only one or two months since 2017 that the company didn’t over pump. 

The amended agreement was ultimately tabled until the village could get more current information on the status of the aquifer that Niagara and all of Valencia County and beyond pump from.  

Industrial zoning in Rio Communities rejected 

The year got off to a contentious start as a family associated with the gas and oil industry pitched the idea of industrial development in the southern part of the city of Rio Communities. 

After two public hearings, which were packed with protesters opposing the request, the Rio Communities Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously voted in March to recommend denial of the two zone change requests — for Industrial 3 and Commercial 3 — by Cibola Land Corp. for nearly 300 acres on the southern end of the city. 

A month later, Cibola Land Corp. president Harvey Yates Jr., a New Mexico oil and gas developer, withdrew the company’s application for the zone changes, which would have allowed for the development of an industrial park. 

After the months-long process, the Rio Communities City Council began revisions to the city’s zoning ordinance to eliminate heavy industrial — I3 — zoning within city limits. 

Rio Communities first police chief, first officer 

After 10 years as a municipality, Rio Communities Mayor Joshua Ramsell appointed Felix Nunez Jr. as the Rio Communities first police chief on Monday, Aug. 14.  

Felix Nunez Jr.
New police chief

Nunez, who was one of more than 30 applicants interested in the position, started on Sept. 5. Prior to taking the Rio Communities position, Nunez was the chief of police in the village of Jemez Springs, N.M., since 2016. 

One of Nunez’s first tasks is to build the department from the ground up, including hiring an officer and a clerk/evidence technician.  

On Dec. 4, the city’s first police officer — Jose Rodriguez — was sworn in. Prior to that, Nunez hired Emma Sanchez as the department’s administrative assistant, who has a degree in criminal justice.  

Arsenio Romero tapped as PED secretary 

It’s not uncommon for an administrator to move up the career ladder, but one Los Lunas Schools administrator made a big jump this year. 

On Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, Arsenio Romero, Ph.D., superintendent of Los Lunas Schools, was named the secretary-designate of the New Mexico Public Education Department by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. 

Romero was hired as Los Lunas Schools superintendent in December 2020 and took over the helm in January 2021. He was one of three finalists for the job. 

Romero is the fifth PED secretary appointed by Lujan Grisham since she took office in 2019. 

Sinkhole near the Los Lunas river bridge 

A bicycle ride on a warm spring night turned into a harrowing event when high water caused erosion under the sidewalk near the Los Lunas river bridge and a man fell through when it collapsed. 

Sergio Marquez, 40, and his son, Felix, 22, were enjoying an evening bike ride along N.M. 6 in Los Lunas on Saturday, May 13, when the sidewalk crumbled under Sergio. He clung to pipes under the walkway to keep from being swept away in the strong current.  

This year saw exceptionally high volumes of water in the Rio Grande, which caused high flows in the drains that run parallel to the river. The drains are designed to take on the overflow from the river so that water doesn’t spread out into developed areas.  

However, this year, the amount of water overwhelmed the infrastructure and eroded the dirt from around the culvert passing under the highway, which led to the sidewalk collapse. The collapse occurred where the Lower Peralta Drain passes under the street east of the Rio Grande. 

After being trapped for 30 minutes, three passersby came to Sergio’s aid. The rescuers, Heaven Chavez-Rodriguez, Jacque Rodriguez and Josh Baca-Torres, along with Felix, were able to pull him out. 

Motorists endured reduced lanes for traffic crossing the bridge through the summer and into the fall as the New Mexico Department of Transportation made repairs. The culvert was finally replaced and all four lanes were reopened in mid November. 

Tara Calico investigation completed 

For nearly 35 years, local, state and federal law enforcement have been investigating the disappearance of Tara Calico. Finally, in June, Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil announced the investigation has been completed. 

“At this time, law enforcement believes there is sufficient evidence to submit this investigation to the district attorney’s office for review of potential charges,” Vigil said. “Currently, the identities and specifics of the persons of interest are sealed by the court and will remain so until a court orders otherwise. Regardless, community members remain a vital resource and we always welcome additional information.” 

On Sept. 20, 1988, Tara Leigh Calico, a 19-year-old college student, went missing during her daily 36-mile bike ride on the desolate N.M. 47 south of Rio Communities. 

Vigil said the sheriff’s office has never given up on finding out what happened to Tara. 

“Tara’s family has suffered long enough,” Vigil said. “…The people responsible for this will have to answer to this family and to the community. We stand behind the family throughout this whole ordeal and we will never stop.” 

To date, the district attorney’s office has not publicly announced whether the persons of interest identified by law enforcement have been charged. 

Kuhn Hotel in Belen to be demolished 

While not technically a historic building but a Belen landmark nonetheless, the fate of the 117-year old Kuhn Hotel was sealed this fall. 

After decades of planning and fighting for the two-story, terron building, owner Joan Artiaga will allow the demolition of the building — but on her own terms. 


“I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t have the fight in me anymore,” Artiaga told the News-Bulletin. “I want to move forward and enjoy life. I want to be joyful, peaceful and positive. I’m really sick and I need to focus on getting well.” 

In the last two decades, the condition of the building has worsened, causing the city of Belen to step in with the city council approving the demolition of the old hotel and four ancillary buildings on the property.  

With potential buyers in the picture, the city allowed them time to better assess the cost of renovations and present a plan to the council. However, in September, hopeful investors Dave and Julia Parton told Artiaga they couldn’t “make the numbers work” and wouldn’t be able to buy the hotel as is.   

After salvaging what she can from the hotel and other buildings, Artiaga will sell the property to the Partons.  

She will then use some of the proceeds of the sale to pay for the demolition, which is slated to happen by year end. 

Jack Williams, lost then found 

After 20 days of searching, the body of a Valencia County man was found less than a mile from his own home. 

Jack Williams, a resident of Las Maravillas, was reported missing by his family on Sept. 6. On Sept. 26, John Williams, Jack’s older brother, told the News-Bulletin the body of the retired corrections officer was found in a field about 8/10 of a mile south of Las Maravillas in a field by a couple of motorcycle riders.  

Williams’ family, friends, area law enforcement and numerous search and rescue organizations searched for the 53-year-old husband and father of two for nearly four weeks before he was found. 

Williams had been at the Moose Lodge in Rio Communities on Tuesday, Sept. 5, and left about 10:40 p.m. When he didn’t come home, his wife, Yvette, immediately started to call his friends and him, but couldn’t locate him.  

The next day, he was reported missing and the search began. At about 7 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 6, friends and family called dispatch saying they found his 2006 Ford F-250 off Military Highway near the foothills of the Manzano Mountains.   

Belen Police Chief James Harris said the truck got stuck, and Williams left on foot, leaving behind his wallet and dead cell phone inside the vehicle. The police chief said Williams’ body was found about six miles from his truck.  

Bye bye to the Bugg Lights 

It’s the end of an era as the beloved Bugg Lights shine for one last holiday season before being returned to the family of the man who made them famous. 

Ronnie Torres, who helped bring and continue the Christmas display that has brought holiday joy and thousands of people to Belen, announced this will be the last year the Bugg Lights will adorn the Hub City.   

“It’s time,” Torres said. “I love it — we love it — but we’ve spent so much time here and making it what it is and haven’t really been able to be with our families during Christmas, and so it’s time we let it go home.”  

Norman Bugg, his wife, Joyce, and her sister, Margie, created and began to display the original Christmas lights display in 1971 in the front yard of the family’s Albuquerque home. After complaints from neighbors about the excessive amount of traffic in the neighborhood, the city forced the family to discontinue the display in 2002.  

It was first moved to Budaghers, a shopping outlet south of Santa Fe, then after two years, it moved to the Menaul School, where parents volunteered to put up the display every winter for the next seven years. 

The Bugg Lights first came to Belen in 2014, and were initially placed at the Belen Harvey House Museum. In 2017 the display moved to a “permanent” home in a city-owned building at 513 Becker Ave., which Torres and the other volunteers transformed into the Bugg Lights Museum.  

The original display will return to the third generation of Bugg family. Norman died in 2017 and Margie passed away last year. Joyce still lives in the home on Hoffman Drive with her son … and grandson, Jason, who takes care of her. 

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.