Dr. Virginia Necochea
Santolina chamaecyparissus1 is an herbaceous perennial, originally from the Mediterranean, known as the “workhorse of the drought-tolerant garden2.”
But for many of us who live and work in the South Valley, the plant with the pretty yellow flowers is furthest from our minds when we hear the name. Instead, we now picture a massive housing development looming in our backyards. Santolina… How I have come to dread even hearing the word.
Over the past year, thanks to the dedicated work of many organizations, neighborhood associations and concerned community members, Santolina has become known across New Mexico. It has become symbolic of outside corporations and developers pushing their visions onto New Mexican communities.
What is Santolina and why should our entire state be concerned?
The Santolina Master Plan would cover more than 13,700 acres of undeveloped land in the southwest portion of Bernalillo County, specifically on the West Mesa. This plan proposes over 37,000 dwelling units that would house approximately 95,000 people. At build-out, Santolina would require over 14,000 acre-feet of water per year. This amount would be comparable to the water use of a new Río Rancho, 150 percent of Santa Fe’s water supply for a comparable population, or 300 percent of Intel’s water use during record periods. (Gaume, 20153). That is the amount that would be required by this development so ironically named after a drought-resistant, low-water-use plant.
Despite this past summer’s wonderful rains, our geographic region remains abnormally dry and under long-term threat of drought conditions. According to scientists, we are facing the prospect of one of the worst droughts in the last 1,000-year period4. The title of an article featured in Science Advances in February 2015 sums it up best: “Unprecedented 21st Century Drought Risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains” [emphasis added]. If this is the current reality, not only of our state but also our Southwest region, consumption of water at this level for a massive development does not make sense. To add to these contradictions, the population of Albuquerque is not significantly increasing. In 2014 the population grew by a mere 0.1 percent5. According to the Census Bureau, more people are leaving the Albuquerque area than arriving. If this is the case, then how can a development of this size be warranted?
Santolina poses a threat to local South Valley traditions.
The South Valley, the oldest neighborhood in what elders know as the Valle de Atrisco, has gone through numerous cultural and economic changes. More than 40,000 people call the South Valley home and over 80 percent are Hispanic/Latino. The median household income is $36,821, and it is estimated that over 25 percent live in poverty (2010 Census).
Although the South Valley is considered to be one of the poorest communities in the area, many residents possess (or can potentially possess) a precious and valuable resource: water rights. Summed up, a water right is the right to water from a specific source to be used at a specific location for a specific beneficial purpose. According to the New Mexico Constitution, the water belongs to the people. As of now, all water rights have been allocated; there are no new water rights in our state. The next logical question then is: “If we are in a drought and all water has been allocated, then where will the water needed to support Santolina come from?”
People who farm and irrigate in the South Valley already know the answer to this question. It would have to come from existing users, mostly acequieras/os and farmers in the middle Río Grande Valley, as there is no unallocated water in the basin. The water consumed by the Santolina development will negatively impact water supplies in the South Valley, thus impacting families whose well being and livelihood depend on precious water resources.
This is why many South Valley and Albuquerque residents and other concerned community members across the state have unified against Santolina—not because we are anti-growth or anti-development, but because we love our community, the South Valley acequias and its traditions. We have come together because we understand current conditions in New Mexico. We are an informed community that knows that our population growth is not significantly increasing and we understand that drought continues to plague our state. These are all serious factors.
Despite the community’s concerns and public outcry, the Santolina Master Plan Level A was approved on a 3-to-2 vote by the Bernalillo County Commission in June 2015 (commissioners Art de la Cruz, Lonnie Talbert and Wayne Johnson voting in favor and commissioners Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley against). This vote sent a shocking jolt across our communities because it clearly demonstrated how skewed the decision-making process is. If elected and appointed officials had remained true to their responsibility of representing their constituents, the Santolina Master Plan would never have made it out of its first vetting phase at the County Planning Commission level.
But instead of giving up, the South Valley community is in it for the long haul. Several lawsuits have been filed calling into question possible violations of the Open Meetings Act and raising many more issues with the process and procedures used in the Santolina decision. So despite the realities that we live in an area where developers and corporate greed seem to dictate what happens in our communities, many of us continue our work to protect our communities.
Dr. Virginia Necochea is director of the Center for Sustainable Systems (CESOSS), a small organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of ways of life and traditions in the South Valley. 505.304.8724, www.cesoss.org
4 See http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/1/e1400082 for full article
6 Image from an exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum