Valley farmers sue Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District over rights

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A group of Rio Grande valley farmers sued the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District this week, charging the irrigation water agency with failing to protect water rights on some of the valley's oldest farm land.

The plaintiffs, led by former conservancy district board member Janet Jarratt, say farmers with water rights dating back to before statehood are being cheated out of water during dry years.

"I can't not try to do something about seeing my children's future being eroded away from under all of us," said Jarratt, a Valencia County farmer whose family's water rights date to the 1800s. Without water, the family's land is worthless, Jarratt said in an interview Thursday. "The land is the water," she said.

A conservancy district spokesman referred questions to the agency's attorney, Chuck DuMars, who could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Because of drought, the conservancy district curtailed water deliveries in August, deciding that the pain should be shared equally among all of its farm water users. In the lawsuit, Jarratt and the other farmers argue that violates the "doctrine of prior appropriation," enshrined in New Mexico's constitution.

The doctrine says that, in times of shortage, the earliest water users have first claim on short supplies. On paper, that creates a pecking order for water based on when farmland was first irrigated, beginning with pueblo farms, then early Spanish farmland, with more recently developed farmland theoretically last in line for water in times of scarcity.

But the conservancy district fails to abide by those rules in distributing water, treating all water users equally, the farmers allege in their suit, filed Wednesday in 2nd District Court in Bernalillo County.

"But for this failure," the suit alleges, "those with senior rights would have received a full delivery of water, or if curtailed such curtailment would only have occurred after deliveries to junior water users had been terminated."

The result is that farmers who should have been entitled to water because of their senior rights suffered economic losses to their crops when deliveries were curtailed at the tail end of the season, said Blair Dunn, the attorney representing the farmers.

The lawsuit drags into public view a long-simmering controversy in water management in the middle Rio Grande. Critics have long complained about the way the conservancy district distributes without regard to seniority.

In some cases, Dunn alleged, landowners have sold their water rights to others, but then continued to irrigate with conservancy district water.

"You're getting people who have no water right at all who are getting water," Dunn said in an interview Thursday.

This is the second year in a row in which farmers suffered early curtailment, and with little water left in carryover storage behind upstream dams, water managers are worried about the risk of a low supply again next year.