U.S. Water News Online
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- New Mexico's largest farm and ranch
group is upset over Gov. Bill Richardson's veto of a measure that
would have let eastern New Mexico farmers keep their land after
selling the land's water rights to the state.
Supporters of the bill contend the veto could jeopardize New
Mexico's ability to meet water obligations to Texas under the Pecos
River Compact and even lead to a priority call on the river -- a
drastic measure that would cut off some users.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, was
pocket vetoed -- meaning it died because the governor did not sign it
by this month's deadline for acting on legislation from the 60-day
The measure was related to a 2003 settlement between the state
engineer, the Carlsbad Irrigation District, the Bureau of Reclamation
and the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District that resolved
long-standing litigation over water rights.
Under the settlement, the state has been buying irrigated farmland
around Roswell and Carlsbad for the water rights. It then stops
irrigating and transfers the water to well fields that can be pumped
to boost New Mexico's delivery of water to Texas. The Legislature has
approved millions of dollars to carry out the settlement.
But the state-acquired land remains fallow, and residents and
farmers alike have complained about man-high weeds and blowing dust
that in one case kept some school buses from running. Ezzell, a
rancher, says the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission -- which
manages the land for the state -- does the best it can, but its
responsibility is administering water, not land.
Her bill would have allowed farmers and ranchers to sell water
rights but keep the land. It also would have let those who previously
sold water rights buy back land now held by the state.
Even without water rights, good management practices would allow
land to be used for grazing, keeping down weeds and dust, Ezzell
The Interstate Stream Commission doesn't need the land attached to
the water rights, and it's a burden to manage, said its director,
Estevan Lopez. He estimated the state's mowing and other maintenance
costs at between $300,000 and $500,000 a year.
State-owned land also is lost to county tax rolls.
"It's ludicrous," Ezzell said. "It makes no sense whatsoever."
She couldn't believe the measure was vetoed.
"I was astounded. Dumbfounded would be more the word," she said.
Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for Richardson, said the legislation
was vetoed "because we weren't certain that all the parties to the
Pecos River settlement process were fully informed and in favor of
Richardson "favors any change in direction that would make the
Pecos settlement easier and cheaper to implement, and as soon as we
can make certain that this approach has universal appeal among the
affected groups, the governor will work for its implementation,"
Ezzell and New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau President Michael
White said the irrigation districts along the Pecos River and every
major agricultural organization in the state supported the measure,
and the state engineer's office testified for it. The bill passed the
House 51-12; Senate passage was unanimous.
Lopez supported the measure, but said there were concerns about
changing the fundamentals of the settlement before the June 30
deadline for buying up water rights.
White and Ezzell fear a priority call if the state cannot get the
rights it needs to satisfy the compact. That would deny water to
holders of newer water rights in the Pecos River Basin until New
Mexico met its obligation to Texas.
Lopez does not believe it will come to that.
"It could potentially spell the failure of the settlement, but I
think it's unlikely," he said.
He expects to meet the minimum requirements for the settlement in
the Carlsbad Irrigation District and the Fort Sumner area, but come
up short in the Pecos Valley district in June.
That would leave three options -- extend the deadline; remove the
minimums with the understanding the commission would continue to
acquire land and water rights; or give up.
"I don't believe anybody's ready to pull the plug on this thing,"
What's been done so far already has achieved enough that the
parties "get at least the lion's share of the benefits we negotiated
for," he said.
White and Ezzell said the commission has had trouble buying water
rights because many farmers don't want to sell their land. Lopez said
some people might have been more willing to offer water rights under
Ezzell's measure, but it wouldn't have been enough to make a
difference by the deadline.
And, Lopez said, when the settlement was negotiated, state
ownership of the land arose as an equity issue. Water ownership is
attached to land in the Carlsbad district, and that district felt
other areas also should have to sell the land along with the water,
White and Ezzell acknowledge the concern that someone who kept the
land could subdivide it, with each house sinking a domestic well --
defeating the purpose of retiring water rights.
Selling both land and water ensures no one would be able to sink a
well once the water rights had been transferred off the land, Lopez
"The state would be able to assure that if they're buying up land
to discontinue water use, that use would be discontinued," he said.
However, he added, "I think we could have done that anyway."
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