Farmers and others talk about water rights and the future

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A few farmers from Valencia and Socorro counties and Isleta Pueblo attended a workshop developed by the New Mexico Acequia Association titled "Food Security and Water Rights."

The workshop, held at the Los Lunas Transportation Center, was an all-day event, culminating in a New Mexico State University farm tour at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center on Miller Road in Los Lunas.

Some of the speakers included Paula Garcia, executive director of the NMAA; David Benavides, director of the Land and Water Rights Project for New Mexico Legal Aid; Santiago Maestas, from the South Valley Regional Association of Acequias; Tom Turney, a former New Mexico state engineer and several others.

One young speaker, Joseluis Ortiz, a farmer from a small town in northern New Mexico, talked about preserving seeds from plants that have been developed over generations, and the importance of creating seed banks, seed libraries and sharing seeds in order to preserve seed diversity and seed sovereignty.

Workshop discussions ranged from the centuries old traditional acequias irrigation system, to water rights, and the encroachment of urban sprawl into agricultural land.

Before 1907, people didn't have to get permission to use water, but after 1907, people had to apply to the territorial engineer for a permit to use water, said David Benavides.

Now, the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission have authority over all ground water as well as surface water, and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District manages about a 150 miles of the river to deliver irrigation water in a system of levees, canals and ditches.

Farmers are concerned about irrigation water distribution and the continuance of traditional farming in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

Hand-in-hand with that concern is the loss of water rights when a farmer retires and no one takes his place. In current water laws, forfeiture is basically use it or lose it.

"If you don't use your water rights, you lose your water rights," said Benavides.

Unused water rights basically get reallocated to other water needs in the state, such as business and residential development or newer farms.

Water in New Mexico is considered fully appropriated, and any new use of water basically comes at the expense of an old community district use, said Paula Garcia.

Transfers are basically water rights in one region of the state, sold to another region of the state, something that did not happen in the old system, Garcia said.

The current drought compounds the demands on water from the competing forces of agriculture, business and residential development.

"We have to remember that in this biosphere that we're in, you and I, and everyone, that the resources are limited," said Lorenzo Candelaria, a seventh generation South Valley farmer. "We're really reaching a critical stage right now."

"I think that all of us are aware we're facing really grave challenges in keeping this way of life growing," said Garcia. "We're in a position now that we have to protect the land, protect the water and inspire more people to be growing food and working the land."

Just two or three generations ago, most communities used to feed themselves, she said.

Santiago Maestas said the Office of the State Engineer can allocate water to whomever it wants on land that is no longer being cultivated, and that the OSE is permitting wells and allowing developers and businesses to take water from the Middle Rio Grande Valley without purchasing water rights from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

The OSE has been handing out water-well permits without requiring water rights for the past 30 to 40 years, said Tom Turney.

"And all I can tell you is that you can dry up a river because of ground water pumping," Turney said.

Particularly alarming is the number of water rights from Valencia County being sold north, said Maestas.

"Not much is being sold in Bernalillo County, and none at all in the South Valley, but in Valencia County and Socorro County, thousands of acres (of water) are already moving north," he said.

"Every week, you can look in the newspaper in the legal section and you'll see people are selling or transferring their water rights to the city of Albuquerque, to the city of Rio Rancho and to the city of Santa Fe, so it's happening already."

Farmers fear acequias will become a thing of the past, and talked about how communities have equitably shared irrigation water in the acequias system for many generations.

According to water laws and regulations, most water usage is based on priority, with older water rights getting preference in times of shortages, Benavides said.

While some communities still operate communally, the courts don't necessarily recognize them, he said.

Benavides and others are working to limit the hierarchical system to accommodate the acequias system, which places community survival above the individual, he said.

"We're trying to create some features in the law that take us somewhat back to the traditional system," Benavides said.

"We need to change and revert back to practices that have sustained us in the past," said Candelaria. "There's a need to understand that water is not a commercial commodity, but an essence of life and a blessing, a gift."

For more information, visit the New Mexico Acequia Association website at, www.lasacequias.org, or call 505-995-9644.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.