Fencing, topped by razor wire

Morgan Timms/Taos News file photo

Buck Johnston stands on top of a drilling rig in March during a four-day protest of the terms of the Abeyta Settlement. The rig was drilling a well for El Prado Water and Sanitation District.

Emblazoned with the letters DRAFT set crosswise on the cover, a stapled copy of the Water Quality Report from Midway Well number 5 lay on the board room table in front of John Painter.

Toward the end of the July 24 monthly board meeting, Painter, a board member of El Prado Water and Sanitation District, held the report aloft and announced: "We got this damn thing, finally!"

But Painter didn't go into the report's details at the meeting. He had even bigger news: "We're cleared to drill number 6."

Number 6 is planned as a supplemental well. Drilling the well--tagged Midway Supplemental Well number 6--may start as early as the first part of August.

Both Midway wells 5 and 6 are located on the mesa along U.S. Highway 64 west of Las Colonias.

Water from well number 6 will supplement what the district is able to draw from number 5, which produces about 500 gallons per minute, Painter said. Under the Abeyta Settlement, a complex water sharing agreement among water users in Taos Valley, Painter said that El Prado water district "has a right to have 1,575 gallons per minute (as a combined total from the west mesa wells)."

To reach that goal, he envisions two to three wells on the west mesa, but he wouldn't rule out more.

Water quality report

"The Midway number 5 is a really clean well. It's basically excellent quality water. It's a good midproduction well for the district. Meets all the EPA standards."

Painter declined to provide a copy of the draft report. "The full report will be out in September," he said.

Midway well number 5 was the site of protests in March by Guardians of Taos Water, a group of residents questioning both the Abeyta Settlement and the reasons behind the El Prado well. Following that protest, EPWSD filed a restraining order against the group.

Midway number 5 was the second well drilled by the water district under the settlement. The first was the 1,800-foot deep Río Grande test well. Painter said they finally abandoned the hole after they bored through about 800 feet of what is known locally as Pilar Hill blow sand. An outcrop of the formation is visible along State Road 64 just north of Pilar.

The quality of water from Midway number 5, about 910-feet deep, has been a subject of speculation since the Río Grande test well failed to produce. And concern about water quality from deeper wells is a key objection among some to the provisions of the Abeyta Settlement.

What's held up the release of the water quality report?

"It's all the state of New Mexico's inability to function properly. We've been waiting three months for the state lab to finish up the analysis," said Painter.

EPWSD hydrologist Maryanne Wasiolek, who is presently out of the country, said by email that she expects to review the draft report on her return in mid-August. She will "make sure everything is accurate and inclusive and have a number of copies printed and bound."

After the report is presented to the district's board, it goes to the Office of the State Engineer. "At that point," said Wasiolek, "the report will become public."

New well

In the meantime, drilling the new well starts soon. The well pad for Midway number 6 sits on a 3-acre site. The district recently hauled 208 truckloads of gravel for the pad, acreage around the pad, and the access road--about 2 acres of gravel in all.

Despite the land disturbance of what is essentially a construction site, the federal Bureau of Reclamation granted the district a Categorical Exclusion. Commonly referred to as a CE, it signifies that an action or project will not have a significant effect on the environment. It's a way "to reduce paperwork and save time and resources," according to the National Environmental Policy Act website.

In a separate email, a bureau spokeswoman said it would likely consider an Environmental Assessment--a more robust environmental review, but still less thorough than an Environmental Impact Statement -- for projects related to the Abeyta Settlement.

About NEPA, Painter said, "We'll have to go through the environmental process for building the infrastructure to connect into our wells. We're following the highway right of way [to connect into the water system] and that has been disturbed already so hopefully we don't run into a big problem there."

Does he anticipate more protests?

"There will be security. Fencing will be put around the site," he said, adding, "with razor wire on top."

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