County and opposition seek to end court battle over Campbell Ranch water supply

It’s a legal battle that has dragged on for nearly 20 years—and now Bernalillo County and an opposition group called Deep Well Protest are seeking an end to it. A hearing will be held in district court June 13 that could decide the matter.

An informational meeting last week drew a full house, with hundreds attending.

History

Campbell Corp. owned a swath of about 30,000 acres of ranch land along North 14 and in the San Pedro Mountains. Edgewood annexed 13,358 acres and a “shoestring” along Frost Road in 2001; Campbell is close to 20 miles from the rest of Edgewood.

Pieces of the original Campbell Ranch were developed by Campbell as San Pedro Creek Estates and the Overlook at San Pedro Creek, and 4,200 acres were sold to Roger Cox for the Paa-ko development.

The remaining 24,000 acres or so are in Sandoval, Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties and are used only for grazing.

Campbell put together a proposed master plan to develop 8,046 acres of the ranch with 4,023 homes in four relatively dense villages, a 750-room hotel, two 18-hole golf courses and commercial areas.

It submitted this massive plan—which could result in creating a new city the size of Socorro if built—to Bernalillo County, where initial development would be concentrated.

After extensive and acrimonious debate, Robert Gately, CEO of Campbell Corp., withdrew his application from Bernalillo County and began negotiations with the just-incorporated town of Edgewood, whose political leaders were hoping for rapid and massive growth.

While Edgewood was receptive to the annexation, availability of water has remained a persistent problem.

In the intervening years, the Campbell Ranch development stalled as legal battles have been waged.

Aquifer Science

In 2009, a company called Aquifer Science was formed, a partnership between Campbell Corp. and Vidler Water, a water rights development company from Nevada.

Vidler Water NM applied to the state engineer for a permit to draw 1,500 acre-feet a year of water for the Campbell Ranch development under the name of Aquifer Science. It amended that application in 2011 and again in 2013.

According to court documents, 95 percent of the ownership is Vidler’s, with 5 percent owned by Campbell.

“The theory was sink these deep wells—it won’t bug anybody,” said Janet Winchester-Silbaugh of Deep Well Protest, adding that “there was this belief there was a lake under there.”

Aquifer Science drilled two wells, one nearly 4,000 feet deep, but did not hit either the quantity or quality of water needed for the development. The Master Plan estimates a need of 1,500 acre-feet a year.

That application was protested by close to 300 people; that opposition coalesced into Deep Well Protest, which hired the N.M. Environmental Law Center. Meanwhile, Bernalillo County protested the application, in part because the county had been denied an application of 30 acre-feet when it put in baseball fields near Vista Grande Community Center, on property very near the master-planned project.

That was in 2013.

The state engineer denied Aquifer Science’s request in 2014 because there is no “unappropriated” water in the Sandia Basin, and the company appealed to district court, where the case still awaits resolution.

“Aquifer Science wasn’t happy with that result,” said Winchester-Silbaugh. “To date they have spent 7.1 million dollars—we know this from their depositions.”

At the beginning of that process in 2014, Aquifer Science was still seeking 1,500 acre-feet. That number was then reduced by the company, first to 1,050 acre-feet, then to 717 acre-feet a year. “So all of a sudden the water needs are changing quite a bit, and we noticed the Master Plan hadn’t changed a whit,” Winchester-Silbaugh said.

The Paa-ko development is supplied with water by Entranosa, and opponents say Campbell Corp. could have at any time done the same for Campbell Ranch.

The last time Edgewood heard from the company was “about 2009, 2010,” said Edgewood Mayor John Bassett. “In the end they didn’t have the water. We haven’t heard back from them since.”

He added, “It’s still way out there, still part of the town of Edgewood. Irregardless of what we think, if it comes up, we’ve got to sit up and deal with it.”

Bassett said after 17 years the town is “not holding our breath.”

Hearing June 13

The latest in the legal wrangling are two motions for summary judgment, which would conclude the case if granted by the judge. One is from Bernalillo County, and the other is from Deep Well Protest.

Bernalillo County’s basic argument is that Aquifer Science’s application is flawed because it failed to meet the requirements of state law. A water supply plan referenced in the Master Plan was never provided along with its application, the county says.

The county also says that Aquifer Science never proved it would put the water to beneficial use, a requirement under state law.

The county says a “complete and updated” copy of the proposed Master Plan adopted by Edgewood and then amended “does not exist.”

Perhaps more problematic legally is the complicated jurisdiction of the master-planned area. Water infrastructure is in Bernalillo County, with portions of the development in Santa Fe and Sandoval counties and the town Edgewood. The Master Plan still calls for development of Village 1, in Bernalillo County, but that has never been approved by the county.

Bernalillo County’s motion seeks denial in full of the application, and as an alternative, denial of water appropriation for Village 1, a reduction it calculates at about 500 acre-feet.

Deep Well Protest’s motion for summary judgment boils down to “Campbell is no longer a beneficial use because they’re an inactive developer,” Winchester-Silbaugh said. “His last development was San Pedro Creek Overlook, and some lots went bankrupt at the end. They haven’t updated their website since 2005.”

Meanwhile, Aquifer Science made its own motion a few days later to reduce the amount of water requested yet again, this time to 350 acre-feet a year. Winchester-Silbaugh said Deep Well Protest responded to that motion asking it be denied, because “all of our work has been based on [the previous] number.”

“This is primarily water impairment issues,” said Kathy McCoy, formerly a state representative for District 22. She has opposed the application since the beginning.

Deep Well Protest is not anti-development, another of the group’s members, Larry Ilfeld, said. “I make my living off developers—I’m in the commercial real estate business. One of these things is that Deep Well Protest, they’re really anti-development, that’s what this whole thing is about and they’re just using the water as an excuse,” he said. “It’s not about development, it’s about development that impinges on the rights of other people. And this is a critical right, which is water.”