LOS LUNAS — Tension and attendance were high at the last Los Lunas Village Council meeting on Feb. 8 where an amended agreement with Niagara Bottling to significantly increase its water use was approved on a three to two vote.  

Niagara’s request for expansion had been brought before the Los Lunas council multiple times in the past few years, but a decision could not be reached until last week, where it was met with remarks of anger and disappointment from several attendees at the most recent meeting.  

This decision follows years of outspoken opposition from many Los Lunas residents and community members from neighboring provinces as the aquifer Niagara pumps from serves all of Valencia County and many surrounding areas.  

Leaders from the Pueblo of Isleta, Peralta and Bosque Farms expressed concern to the Los Lunas council on multiple occasions about how the decision will affect neighboring communities. 

Most recently, Niagara requested access for up to 782 acre-feet per year versus the 700 AFY they were originally requesting in 2022 and the 650 AFY in 2021.  

Concerns were raised by local water watchdog group Valencia Water Watchers members at the Dec. 7 meeting that the aquifer data the council was relying on for the request was insufficient. The item was then tabled so Dr. Lee Wilson, a hydrologist the council consults with, could provide additional information on the health of the aquifer.   

Felina Martinez| News-Bulletin photos
For the last several years, members of Valencia Water Watchers such as Kathy McCord have protested and spoken out about proposals they feel endanger the water quality and supply in the region, including Niagara’s request to increase consumption.

At the Feb. 8 Los Lunas council meeting, Wilson said, “The aquifer is healthy. It has the potential to last for decades, even centuries if it’s properly regulated by the state engineer, which is what’s happening right now.” 

Wilson said the recharge rate of the aquifer is “way lower” than the amount being pumped, but there’s over 1,000 feet of it, so there is not yet a problem. 

Wilson also admitted he has his own concerns about Niagara’s total water use, given what benefit it has to the village, and “the many issues” they’ve had in not complying with the current agreement.  

At the Dec. 7, 2023, meeting, it was revealed Niagara is consistently exceeding the amount of water use agreed upon in the current contract, and there have only been one or two months where they have not gone over what they were allocated.  

Larry Guggino, the village’s attorney, said the permit that was approved by the state engineer allowed Niagara 285 AFY of consumptive use. However, they are diverting 340 AFY.  

The logic Guggino presented was that Niagara, according to their data, is returning 129.72 AFY as return flow credit so considering this brings their total consumptive use within their allotted range.  

Guggino stated there is no shut-off requirement in the current agreement for over diversion. Instead, the current contract requires Niagara to pay surcharges for the amounts they go over which is then used by the village to buy additional water rights.  

Guggino said Niagara paid all the required surcharges for the amount they exceeded.  

“They have legally followed the obligation they set up for,” said councilor James Runyon. “And I haven’t got an agenda here. We’re vilifying them when it sounds like it was the agreement that was poor in the first place.” 

Todd Uhlick, Niagara’s vice president of expansion and real estate, confirmed that “there’s never been a policy to enforce (overages) that we’re incurring.” 

“I do want to add that Larry has put significant teeth in the (amended) agreement, such that if we were to go over the target amounts, there are significant penalties,” said Uhlick. “It’s our intention to make you proud of us and honor the agreement.” 

Councilor Christopher Ortiz asked the Niagara representatives why their original request for 650 AFY has now increased to 782. 

“The real world number is honestly probably closer to 650,” said Khristopher Ward, director of real estate expansion for Niagara. “But in order to comply with the water balance, you asked us to supply peak day and that’s exactly what we’ve done.” 

“We don’t believe that we’re going to hit (782),” Ward continued. “In the summer, peak production may have days where you hit 100 percent, a near perfect production day, but that’s not attainable year round.”  

Councilor Gino Romero still wasn’t sold on Niagara’s request for such a substantial increase based on the projected 2.8 percent state population growth and the 3.6 to 6.1 percent national demand increase for bottled water. 

Ward said the expansion “contemplates some flexibility for future precedents” and they are attempting to meet growing demand in the region by adding a second bottling line here so the economic benefit stays within the state. 

“But we’re only growing at 2.8 percent, so how do you justify asking for 260 percent more than what you’re currently using?” Romero asked. “I mean, this has to make sense in order to earn my vote and right now this isn’t making sense.”  

Romero made a motion to deny Niagara’s request.  

“Instead of staying within the terms of the current agreement, they simply chose to over consume,” said Romero.  

He said there’s also concern that if there should be an unforeseen well or tank failure in the village that, due to the water systems current capabilities, “the village would have difficulty meeting its current obligations for water supply.” 

“Although this is a problem that is anticipated to be resolved once the two new well projects are completed, I’m concerned in the short term as it would be detrimental to the citizens of the village,” Romero concluded.  

Councilor Cruz Munoz seconded the motion and voted yes to deny Niagara’s request. Councilors Ortiz and Runyon voted no, which led to Los Lunas mayor Charles Griego’s tie-breaking vote which was no.  

After the motion failed, Ortiz said “I see both sides of the aisle, but (the council) has done our homework as far as our professionals, staff and everything else.  

“However, I do believe that there have been some shortfalls from Niagara as far as not keeping up with their agreement.” 

Ortiz then made a motion to approve the request, but with an amendment to provide up to 600 AFY versus the original 782 Niagara requested.  

“We do got to look out for the people. We also got to look out for our future growth as well,” said Ortiz.  

Runyon seconded the motion and voted yes. Munoz and Romero voted no and Griego voted yes as the tie-breaker vote.  

Following the decision, Pueblo of Isleta governor Max Zuni said “(Niagara) cannot begin pumping that additional water until the New Mexico State Engineer makes a final decision about the transfer of water rights from PNM to Niagara.” 

In a statement released by VWW, they thanked the community for “showing up and standing up to Niagara” and announced they will be holding a protest at Main Street Memorial Park in Los Lunas on Friday, Feb. 16 at noon as “the fight is not over.”  

“VWW intends to explore multiple avenues of opposition that include, but are not limited to: continued protest, demonstration, outreach and community education,” the statement read.  

“We are asking people to bring comments (to the protest) they would have shared if the Mayor had not prohibited public comment at last week’s meeting.” 

In an email exchange forwarded to the News-Bulletin by Geri Rhodes, a Tomé resident who questioned the lack of public comment at the Feb. 8 meeting, Los Lunas mayor Charles Griego explained the agenda item concerning Niagara at that meeting was a continuation of the council meeting held on Dec. 7, 2023. 

“At that meeting everyone that wanted to speak was afforded the opportunity to do so,” Griego wrote. “Council members tabled action … until they were able to hear and question the village’s water rights consultant…” 

In a statement posted on his public Facebook page, Councilor Romero said, “I tried everything I could think of to deny the water expansion request and for the first time in nine years, I am embarrassed to be associated with the Village of Los Lunas Council.” 

In his statement, Peralta mayor Bryan Olguin thanked councilman Munoz and commended councilman Romero for “presenting a great defense on why Niagara’s outrageous request should not be approved. 

“Not once did I hear the importance of approving this request,” said Olguin. “Most often a municipality will seek to increase (gross receipts taxes) for public safety, infrastructure or other needs of the community…all I heard was the amount of revenue into the Los Lunas bank account. 

“Much respect goes out to all individuals who serve their community in one way or another. 

“However, please respect the resources that sustain us by NOT placing a price tag on it,” Olguin concluded. “God willing, this may be the start of presenting legislation to stop the stripping of our God-given precious natural resources.” 

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Felina Martinez was born and raised in Valencia County. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2021. During her time at UNM, she studied interdisciplinary film, digital media and journalism. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, the School of Dreams Academy and the town of Peralta.