Abeyta water settlement protestor convicted at trial

William "Buck" Johnston was found guilty of criminal trespassing and resisting arrest at a jury trial this week at Taos Magistrate Court. The case was connected to Johnston's protest of the Abeyta Water Settlement in 2019, in which he climbed a water drilling rig in the El Prado Water & Sanitation District and stayed there for four days. Pictured: Johnston stands on top of the drilling rig on March 15, 2019.

Updated Sept. 15 at 4:18 p.m.

William "Buck" Johnston, a Llano Quemado man who climbed a water drilling rig in protest of the Abeyta water rights settlement in March 2019, was found guilty at a jury trial Tuesday (Sept. 8) of criminal trespassing and resisting arrest.

"Leaders of the El Prado Water and Sanitation District and New Mexico State Police Officers who were tasked with coaxing Johnston down from the rig testified that he illegally climbed the structure and refused to leave the property when he was instructed to by police and District officials," reads a press release from the 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office.

Johnston, who is Diné (Navajo), climbed the 60-foot rig on March 14, 2019, drawing crowds to the highway side on U.S. 64 West to support him and law enforcement who tried for days to encourage him to come down. When he descended the rig four days later, on March 17, he was immediately arrested and taken to the Taos County jail.

"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 following his release the next day. "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."

Johnston also testified at this week's trial, reiterating his concerns about the risks the drilling posed to the local aquifer.

Christine Dimas, general manager of the water and sanitation district, also took the witness stand at the trial, explaining that the Abeyta Settlement – formally the Taos Pueblo Indian Water Rights Settlement – is a legal agreement signed in 2012 to resolve water rights for the pueblo, area irrigation ditches, the town of Taos and some mutual domestic water systems.

Tuesday's jury trial marked the first to take place in the local magistrate court during the novel coronavirus pandemic; it included temperature checks, mandatory masks, social distancing restrictions, hand sanitizer stations and periodic disinfecting of surfaces.

A sentencing hearing on Johnston's charges, both misdemeanors, was rescheduled from later this month to Oct. 1 at 2 p.m.

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