News-Bulletin file photo

A protester holds an anti-Niagara sign at a protest that was held in February 2021 at Daniel Fernandez Memorial Park ahead of Niagara’s last proposal to increase water use to 650 acre-feet per year.

 

LOS LUNAS — The Niagara Bottling Company in Los Lunas is again asking the village of Los Lunas to increase the amount of water the company can extract from the aquifer that sits below Valencia County and beyond.

Last year, the company asked the village if it could more than double its water production from 285 acre feet per year to 650 acre feet per year after leasing water rights from PNM. Following backlash from the community, Niagara rescinded its request.

Los Lunas Public Works Director Michael Jaramillo said this amended agreement between Niagara and the village is to protect the municipality in case the company’s lease for water rights falls through.

“The village is always concerned about our water production and our water use. We have a policy and a process for commercial and industrial developments,” Jaramillo said. “What we always want to do is make sure the village can produce the water that’s needed for any development including any kind of amended or increased development.”

Similar to 2021, Niagara again secured the water rights from PNM, which has been leasing out part of its water rights since beginning the retirement of the generating station in San Juan County, which is expected to close by the end of the year.

Jaramillo said the village would “without a doubt” be able to meet the increased water needs of the bottling plant since Los Lunas installed a new well that Niagara and the entire (Los Morros Business Park) will be pulling from — well No. 7 —  as well as doubled the pumping capabilities of well No. 3.

“We have plenty of water and we have the ability to pump a lot of water,” Jaramillo said. “It is what it is but, like I said, they are bringing the water rights in. If something should change on their end, that’s why it’s on the agenda is to make sure we are not held responsible to provide them water if they lose any type of water rights.”

While the village will be considering the amended agreement with the water bottling company on Thursday, some residents are not happy about it.

“(Niagara) keeps wanting to go bigger in their system and produce more, but they don’t produce anything …,” said Duana Draszkiewicz, a member of Valencia Water Watchers and a member of the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors. “The water is already there; the water already belongs to the people. So, they aren’t producing anything, they are stealing it.”

A newly-amended water contract with Niagara, which will be heard during Thursday’s council meeting, could expand the company’s water use from 285 acre feet per year to 700 acre  — more than 228 million gallons of water  per year.

Niagara did not respond to the News-Bulletin’s request for comment prior to publication.

“They’ve already got it all lined up. It looks very legal and neat, but what it doesn’t show is what the results will be down the line,” Draszkiewicz said to the News-Bulletin. “We, historically, can see that across the United States, and into other countries where Nestle has done the same thing … Are we just going to let water bottling plants steal our water because they can sell it really cheap and make a whole lot of money? We need our water.”

The Valencia Water Watchers first came together in 2020 when word of a potential Niagara expansion began to reverberate through the community.

Deidra Velasquez, the spokesperson for the group, said she took the helm of organizing when Niagara officially proposed a water use increase in early 2021. The members held a protest to combat the 2021 proposal, which drew about 50 people

The group again plans to protest this year’s proposal, asking for both Niagara to withdraw their amended agreement with the village of Los Lunas, as well as a “stark increase in transparency from the government officials allowing it to happen, and even encouraging it,” Velasquez said.

Jaramillo said the village plans to adjust its long range comprehensive plan in the wake of increased industrial and residential development in the village to keep up with increased water demands. The village also plans to purchase additional water rights to accommodate growth and facilitate a study on the aquifer to explore possibilities of recharge.

“Growth is going to be inevitable for anybody …and because we are a part of the regional aspect of Albuquerque, that’s happening,” Jaramillo said. “As much as I want to say, don’t come here no more, I can’t tell people to sell their property or not sell their property; all I can do is hold them accountable to the resources they use.”

While the village continues to welcome development the rapid growth of the village still has local activists concerned.

“For us and our farmers, we are concerned because we aren’t getting rain or anything we used to get. We are seeing extreme aerification in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. We know that our aquifers are not getting recharged in the same way they used to,” said Alejandría Lyons, an environmental justice organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project. “It’s a threat of us having to drill greater wells and it’s just not a great time in this severe drought.”

Lyons grew up in the acequia community of Peralta, just north of Los Lunas; however, her school and work took her to Albuquerque, where she now works with SWOP to uplift communities facing environmental challenges.

“Los Lunas and Valencia County are founded on that agricultural history,” Lyons said. “(I hope) we don’t continue to zone out agricultural lands and that folks, like our mayor, who are very proud of the fact that they come from that agricultural history, take that into consideration when they are voting to expand water rights and the utilities to these different businesses. We were here first and we want to preserve that for our kids and our other generations.”

The council will consider amending the agreement at its meeting at 6 p.m., Thursday, June 23.

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Makayla Grijalva was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a 2020 graduate of The University of New Mexico, where she studied multimedia journalism, political science and history. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, SODA and the town of Peralta.