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As if Placitas really needed a sign of a bountiful monsoon, a forest of sunflowers is gracing the shoulder of State Route 165.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Monsoon drenchings halt Rail Runner, but relieve drought

Signpost Staff

The bounty of the 2015 monsoon keeps adding up, even if too much of a good thing can shut down a railroad for a weekend.

A cloudburst north of Placitas on July 31 sent runoff roiling down Arroyo Maria Chavez and over the Rail Runner Express tracks near Algodones thirty minutes after a train passed. The water damaged about 150 feet of track that Friday afternoon, shutting down the railroad and stranding 110 passengers on either side, Rio Metro Regional Transit District Communications Manager Augusta Meyers said.

The water was estimated to be at least five-feet deep as it came out of culverts under State Route 313 about six hundred feet above the railroad. A high-water warning system alerted Rail Runner dispatchers to the problem, although a TV news crew already in the air had called to report the flooding, Meyers added.

Buses carried passengers around the washout, and Rail Runner canceled all trains for the next two days in part because equipment needed for weekend service to and from Belen was stuck in Santa Fe.

On that Saturday, Amtrak ran buses between Lamy and Albuquerque for passengers on the Southwest Chief. People heading for Los Angeles arrived a little over three hours late on Sunday morning, while the Chicago-bound train arrived there just after midnight Monday morning, nine hours off its schedule.

Repairs were completed about noon on Sunday allowing the Amtrak trains to pass through.

There are no National Weather Service weather spotters located where the storm hit San Felipe Pueblo, so it’s not known how much rain fell there. The two weather spotters in Placitas each logged about half an inch that day and overnight.

Both spotters are in eastern Placitas, one near the intersection of Camino San Francisco and Diamond Tail Road, the other off Camino del las Huertas, north of the Placitas village.

By mid August the first spotter had logged 11.8 inches of precipitation for the year, the other 10.3 inches, according to online records. Both sites are roughly double last year’s totals for the same time period when the spotters tallied 6.5 and 4.7 inches respectively.

Placitas averages between 11 and 12 inches of rain a year depending on location. The weather service considers monsoon season to run from June 15 through September 30, so an above average year seems assured.

Then there’s El Nino, the warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean that generally brings even more fall and winter moisture to north central New Mexico. Only this year forecasters say it could be a monster, given how El Niño already is developing.

NASA climatologist Bill Pazert earned his 15 minutes of fame in the national news in mid August when he said, “This definitely has the potential to be a Godzilla El Niño.”

Big El Niños of the recent past have brought major flooding to California and heavy snow to the desert Southwest shutting down interstates and stranding travelers.

Meanwhile, a report issued August 20 by the National Drought Mitigation Center showed that while the western half of the state and a bit of the southeast were abnormally dry or in moderate drought, all signs of severe drought seen earlier in the year are gone.


Signpost adds new “online”

The Signpost has added a new Arts & Entertainment Calendar to the Signpost website as a community service. Focus will be on featuring the art and entertainment events in Sandoval County and those that are directly linked to the residents of Sandoval County.

If you are an artist or musician or organizer in the area and would like your news published in the online calendar, go to the Signpost website at sandovalsignpost.com and click on Arts & Entertainment Calendar on the Home Page. There you can submit your event details for inclusion via a Who-What-Where-When-Why form. Deadline to submit your event is always the twentieth of each month.


County takes stand on mining the Buffalo Tract

Signpost Staff

The Sandoval County Commission has come out in opposition to opening federal land in northwestern Placitas to sand and gravel mining.

At their August 6 meeting, the four commissioners present voted unanimously to oppose mining in the 3,100-acre Buffalo Tract and instead encourage use as open-space and a wildlife corridor. The tract, shaped like a buffalo in profile, extends from near Interstate 25 at Algodones along the southern border of San Felipe Pueblo, past Camino de la Rosa Castilla, and hooks south to Las Huertas Creek.

It is under control of the Bureau of Land Management, which is about to release its updated Rio Puerco Resource Management Plan (RMP) covering the BLM district spread across all or parts of seven counties. BLM land in Placitas includes about two hundred acres bordering the Overlook and Cedar Creek subdivisions, a small parcel abutting San Felipe Pueblo in northeastern Placitas and the Crest of Montezuma, more than nine hundred acres being considered in Congress for addition to the Cibola National Forest.

“The BLM plays such a big role in this country,” Commissioner James Dominguez, who sponsored the resolution, told the Signpost. “We have a great relationship, and they’ve done a lot for us… Now they’ve got to report to Sandoval County as to what steps they’ll be taking, and we’ll at least have a little control over what’s agreeable and what’s not agreeable.”

The RMP, an update of the 1985 plan, has been in development since 2008 and generated fifty thousand comments after the draft was released in 2012. John Brenna Jr., who manages the BLM Rio Puerco Field Office, said the proposed RMP and final environmental impact statement could be released as early as this month.

Once the plan is out, participants already involved in the process will have thirty days to protest, and the state will have sixty days to review it for any conflicts with its plans and policies. Completion of the RMP makes lands designated for resource development available, kicking off a new process.

“The BLM will make decisions that best affect the American people as a whole,” Brenna said. “The BLM enjoys a great partnership with Sandoval County and will continue, as we have in the past, to listen to their suggestions about federal land use as it affects Sandoval County.”

So far Santa Ana and San Felipe pueblos and the San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant have expressed interest in the Buffalo Tract as have advocates for free-roaming horses and preserving a wildlife corridor between the Sandia and Jemez mountains. The BLM, however, is not accepting any formal applications while the RMP is pending.

Dominguez’s resolution cites the Placitas Area Plan approved by the county in 2009. It specifically mentions maintaining the Buffalo Tract as open space with part set aside for the wildlife corridor.

Meanwhile, residents and the county are in an ongoing struggle with four existing gravel mines spread along the I-25 frontage road and bordering Placitas. A zoning lawsuit filed against Lafarge, until recently the operator of the largest pit, remains pending, as do state air-quality violations.

Vulcan Materials Company bought out Lafarge last year and is working to resolve the violations, according to state officials.

Meanwhile the lawsuit filed in April 2014 is on its seventh judge with a motion by the Placitas-based Land Use Protection Trust (LPT) to intervene in the case pending since November. The lawsuit alleges violations of a 1988 agreement limiting mining operations and expansion and setting this year for closing down.

“Placitas is not going to be the gravel mining capital of New Mexico,” LPT Chair Dick Ulmer told county commissioners.

LPT and the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association (ES-CA) have both been pressuring the county and the state over uncontrolled dust, the expansion of the Placitas pit, the lack of air-quality monitoring and the affect on property values. Residential users, particularly retirees with disposable income moving in from elsewhere, generate more economic activity, by far, for the county than does by quarrying, according to both groups.

Vulcan controls the three mines and an asphalt plant north of State Route 165 while Fisher Sand and Gravel is reopening a pit south of the highway after being annexed into the town of Bernalillo earlier this year. Negotiations between the town and ES-CA led to limits on the operation including ceasing all operations after seven years.

The groups also fought for a stronger resolution aimed at the BLM than the one approved last month.

“We wanted something much, much stronger than this,” ES-CA President Bob Gorrell said. “However the county felt additional demands would have been hard to defend in court,” he added.

Meanwhile Vulcan is showing more community involvement than its predecessor staging an open house in July and donating gravel to landscape Algodones Elementary School.

“They’ve been trying to work with the county and with residents,” Dominguez said. “That makes me happy, and I think it makes the residents of Placitas happy.”

Dominguez said he’s also worked with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District to clear debris from the east bank of the Rio Grande below U.S. Highway 550 to begin developing a parking area beside the Sandia Lateral Canal, access to fishing, and ultimately a trail extending south to Camino del Bosque. Vulcan has agreed to contribute gravel to that effort as well as to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Peña Blanca, he said.

Those donations delivered in smaller amounts over time may reach 3,000 yards of material, Dominguez added.


History of the San Antonio de las Huertas land grant

—Robert Gajkowski

On September 26, at 2:00 p.m., in the Collin Room at Placitas Library, as part of the ongoing Placitas History Project series of history programs, former New Mexico State Historian Robert J. Torrez will speak about the many land grants in the New Mexico Territory awarded by the Spanish king and later by the Mexican Government. These grants were usually given as reward for service to the respective authority. Many grants, such as Placitas’s San Antonio de las Huertas Grant, were awarded to groups or families in order to consolidate the particular government’s claim to large areas of land or, sometimes, to establish an outlier for the protection of a more important location. In part, this was the case of the Las Huertas Grant. It provided early warning of raids to the larger populations along the Rio Grande.


Parents and visitors explore the new Bernalillo High School following dedication ceremonies on August 21, 2015.

Spartans celebrate opening of modern high school

Signpost Staff

Bernalillo’s new high school is officially open for education, even as construction continues on the second phase of the $35 million dollars campus makeover.

By the time school and student leaders cut the ribbon to the classroom building on August 21, more than nine hundred students had already had a week to adjust to their new quarters.

“The look of wonderment and pride on this campus is rewarding,” Principal Keith Cowan said during the dedication ceremony. “This is an exciting day for all of us.”

“A fresh start is exciting for everyone,” added student body President Sara Perez. “There is a feeling of enthusiasm, more students are involved in activities, and the campus is clean, all signs of pride,” she said.

The dedication was held in the shade of the entry court where two-story pillars support a canopy roof in front of the classroom, administrative, and library building. The Spartan gym, the only building to remain from the original campus, sits on the opposite side of the entryway.

When the second phase is done, more new buildings, including a cafeteria, black-box theater, and technical and vocational centers will complete the circle around a central courtyard. The current Bernalillo High School campus opened in 1948 and is the only high school in the district that draws students from surrounding communities and pueblos.

“We were long overdue for a new school,” said Superintendent Alan Tapia, who also thanked voters for approving the bonds underwriting the project. “This is not just any school. It has cutting-edge technology and the aesthetics conducive to learning.”

Dale Dekker, a principal in the Dekker/Perich/Sabatini architectural firm, said school pride was prominent in their design.

“The first thing we heard is what it is to be a Spartan,” he said. “Students will be reminded of that every day as Spartan appears in large red letters above the entry court arches,” he said.

Construction is expected to be complete by the time the 2016-17 school year begins.


Court revives WHOA lawsuit against livestock agency

—Bill Diven

Advocates for the free-roaming horses of Placitas are celebrating a legal victory that may—or may not—mean they get their day in court.

On August 4, the New Mexico Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s dismissal of the lawsuit filed by the Placitas-based Wild Horse Observers Association (WHOA) against the New Mexico Livestock Board (NMLB). The suit file in February, 2014, alleged the horses roaming Placitas should not be corralled and sold as estray livestock but instead handled as wild mustangs entitled to legal protections.

At the time, the NMLB had been collecting horses captured by landowners in Placitas and offering them for sale at auction as unclaimed strays.

“This is a huge victory for the scenic rural mountain village of Placitas nestled in the foothills of the beautiful Sandia Mountains,” WHOA said in a news release. “The case is now remanded back to the District Court for further proceedings.”

Before that can happen, however, the state Supreme Court may weigh in.

Attorney David Reynolds, representing 11 Placitas residents who side with the NMLB and joined the lawsuit, told the Signpost that he’ll ask the Supreme Court to review the decision and uphold the dismissal. NMLB Executive Director William Bunce said his agency is still discussing whether to petition the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has the option of accepting the case or simply letting the Court of Appeals ruling stand.

In its 22-page ruling, the Court of Appeals wrestled with two sections of the Livestock Code. One treats all horses as livestock while the other governs wild horses found on certain public lands and requires DNA testing to determine if they have colonial Spanish bloodlines.

“We conclude that ‘livestock’ does not include undomesticated, unowned animals, including domesticated and unowned horses; therefore, undomesticated, unowned horses cannot be ‘estray,’” Judge Jonathan Sutin wrote with two colleagues concurring. “We also conclude that (the Livestock Code) requires the Board to DNA test and relocate wild horses.”

Adding wild horses to the Livestock Code was pushed by WHOA, sponsored in the Legislature by then-Sen. Steven Komadina, D-Corrales, and signed into law by Gov. Bill Richardson in 2007. While the NMLB contends the law did not specifically direct it to do DNA testing and relocate Spanish colonial horses, the appeals court decided that is what the Legislature intended.

“This puts the Livestock Board in the crosshairs between an imperfect science and a no-man’s land as far as statutory regulations,” Bunce said. “If you go to the Spanish Mustang Registry, DNA testing will not tell you if a horse is Spanish or not… They’ve given us a bushel basket of questions.”

The Spanish Mustang Registry, operating through Texas A&M University, states on its website that DNA testing cannot establish the lineage of a horse of unknown ancestry. Instead it establishes baseline data for a horse and its future offspring.

Other sources say DNA testing and blood typing can be helpful in establishing heritage but only in conjunction with other information on the physical characteristics and history of a particular horse.

Reynolds said he’s basing his request for a Supreme Court review on two issues: the appellate decision conflicting with established case law, and the consequences of redefining “livestock” and “estray.” Separately, the 2007 addition of DNA testing to the Livestock Code applies to horses found on certain public lands, and there may be none of those lands in Placitas, he added.

“The caveat in all of this is don’t confuse a horse being non-livestock to being legally wild,” Reynolds said. “It only means that if the horse is captured on ‘DNA land.’ It doesn’t mean it can’t be captured on private land.”

The Livestock Code defines a wild horse as an unclaimed horse that is not estray and is found on public land. But it excludes state trust lands and federal land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service.

Reynolds said the only public land here that might qualify is the 560-acre Placitas Open Space. That land is managed by the city of Albuquerque, which obtained it from the BLM in 1966 for low-impact recreation and to preserve its natural characteristics. Because it’s under BLM guidelines, that land may be excluded as well, Reynolds said.

The city, citing damage to the land from wandering horses, recently fenced the entire property.

A request for additional comment from WHOA instead brought a response from President Patience O’Dowd directing to its website, WHOANM.org, for further information on the lawsuit and other horse-related issues.

 
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