Update 9 p.m. — Negotiations between law enforcement and the water activist, Buck Johnston, have continued throughout the afternoon and evening.
Update 4:45 p.m. — New Mexico State Police crisis negotiators are on the scene and speaking with Johnston. "[The] individual is being peaceful with negotiators at this time," said a NMSP spokesperson.
A group of locals concerned about the impacts of a water rights settlement began a nonviolent prayer action at a water well site in Taos County at about dawn on Thursday (March 14) to draw attention to implementation of the Abeyta Settlement.
Buck Johnston, one of the self-described water protectors, climbed the drilling rig at a water well site along U.S. 64 east of the Río Grande Gorge at 7 a.m. His plan is to remain on the rig for four days, protesting some of the terms of a decade-old water agreement that impacts the entire Taos Valley.
“Right now this is to bring awareness and get people informed. This is what it takes to really be loud about it,” Johnston said in a Facebook video atop the rig.
While Johnston is on the drilling rig, a group of people are gathered near the highway, praying, eating and singing in support of Johnston and the earth, they said.
"I know he's prepared and he has all our support. It's all for the water and the land," said Maria Jim, a water protector and Johnston’s wife.
The settlement "is not for us locals. It's for people who want to exploit and suck life out of the earth," she added.
New Mexico State Police have been on the scene throughout the day, along with firefighters from Red River and the town of Taos.
"It is in the hands of state police now," said John Painter, a board member with the El Prado Water and Sanitation District, before walking back to the well site.
The police captain on hand said a drone hovering around the well rig was state police equipment.
The test well site, if drilling is successful in tapping into a deep aquifer, is meant to be a water supply well for the El Prado Water and Sanitation District, which is part of the Abeyta Settlement and the entity moving with the most speed toward holding up its end of the water agreement.
The Abeyta Settlement is a water-rights agreement among Taos Pueblo, Taos Valley Acequia Association, the town and mutual domestic water groups. It was crafted first by Taos Pueblo and the acequia association, which hold the oldest water rights in the valley. The town and mutual domestic water systems also signed onto the agreement, which was approved by Congress in 2008.
Implementing the details of the agreement have remained thorny and controversial.
The water protectors are calling for a complete federal environmental impact study of the settlement and its proposed projects such as the supply well. Their action Thursday seeks to bring the issues surrounding the settlement to public attention. They also are calling on all the parties to hold a more robust public discussion about the details of carrying out the Abeyta agreement, the costs, the long-term impacts and who benefits.
Many of the same people, members of Guardians of Taos Water, held a prayer action in late 2018 to call attention to the Abeyta Settlement.
In New Mexico, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the water. These so-called senior water rights sell at a high price on the water market and are prized by towns and developments with younger junior water rights. In times of drought, senior water rights holders legally have top priority for using water. Abeyta sought to settle the questions over water rights throughout the Taos Valley.
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This is a developing story. Check back at taosnews.com for updates.