Buck Johnston breezed through the front door of the Taos County Adult Detention Center Monday (March 18) with a smile on his face after spending a night in jail for climbing a drill rig in protest of new water wells planned for Taos County.
Johnston, who lives in Llano Quemado and said he is of the Diné tribe, emerged from the jail wearing the same black and blue "love water" bandana he donned for four days atop the 60-foot rig.
His demonstration drew widespread attention to the new water wells, which are part of the Abeyta Water Settlement. He is one of many local activists concerned about the environmental impacts the project could have on Taos Valley.
Earlier on Monday he was arraigned in Taos Magistrate Court for trespassing and resisting arrest, both misdemeanors, before Judge Jeff Shannon ordered his release.
"They let me out quick, man," Johnston said as he embraced a friend who had been waiting to greet him outside the jail.
He scanned the courtyard at the Taos County Courthouse Complex and laughed when he saw that a larger crowd hadn't gathered to celebrate his release.
"No one else came out, huh?" he said.
While only one person showed up to see him go free, hundreds of county residents, many of whom call themselves "water protectors," had flocked to the base of the rig where he began his protest last Thursday (March 14). They camped out to support him until he descended Sunday morning (March 17).
New Mexico State Police Officers stationed around the base of the rig for the four-day protest also awaited Johnston's descent, and took him into custody once he reached the ground.
Johnston said law enforcement were in constant contact with him after he strapped himself to the top of the rig, which is located a few miles east of the Río Grande Gorge Bridge on U.S. 64 West.
While Johnston climbed the tower equipped with supplies, including a military-grade sleeping bag, withstanding the elements proved challenging, he said.
"The first night was the worst – and that’s good because it let me know I wasn’t going to have an easy time up there," he said. "It was blowing and snowing sideways. It was freezing."
He said police expressed concern for his wellbeing. But as they prevented him from sleeping and at one point tried to pull down some of his supplies, he said he knew they were also doing their best to bring his protest to an early end.
"They came up with a hook on a stick, and when I wasn’t looking, they grabbed my backpack and tried to rip it off the rig," Johnston said, "but I had it looped on a bolt there,
so they tore my backpack, I popped out of my sleeping bag, grabbed my stuff and held onto that. From there on, I kept all my stuff behind me and near me."
In spite of those challenges, Johnston hung on at the top of the steel tower, broadcasting his progress periodically by livestreaming himself on Facebook.
Those videos gained thousands of views throughout the four days, and the numbers continue to tick upward this week.
But many who tuned into the spectacle still aren't clear as to who Johnston is or why he climbed the rig in the first place.
"The reason I went up there is because this is one of a potential 16 'mega wells' that they are planning on installing around the Taos Valley," Johnston said. "This is the early stages in the implementation of the Abeyta Settlement, and our aquifers here in the Taos Valley are in serious danger of being exploited and seriously damaged, along with our springs, wetlands and rivers."
The Abeyta Settlement is a legally binding agreement reached more than a decade ago to resolve water rights among Taos Pueblo, area irrigation ditches, the town of Taos, and some mutual domestic water systems. The well Johnston climbed was under construction for El Prado Water and Sanitation District. The district is capping another well near a vital Taos Pueblo pasture as part of the settlement and replacing that pumping capacity with the well on U.S. 64.
For more on this story, including a deeper dive into the water well and the water rights settlement it is tied to, see the March 21 edition of The Taos News.
Reporter Cody Hooks contributed to this story.