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Supreme Court blocks ruling on water pumping

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FOR THE RECORD: Scott Gregory’s name has been corrected in this story.

The New Mexico Supreme Court on Monday temporarily blocked a lower court ruling challenging the state’s process for transferring water rights to a state-run field of groundwater wells.

The groundwater wells, between Artesia and Carlsbad, are part of a broad state drought management strategy, pumping water into the Pecos River to meet the needs of downstream farmers and the state’s legal obligation to deliver water to Texas. But other groundwater users in the area complain that the state’s heavy pumping is lowering the area’s water table, negatively impacting other area residential, ranch and farm wells.

Elizabeth Taylor, attorney for ranchers Larry and Scott Gregory, argues that state officials have a conflict of interest in the way they were carrying out water rights transfers needed to enable the pumping. State Engineer Scott Verhines is an officer of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, the state agency that is asking to transfer the water rights to the well field. But as state engineer, Verhines also is the person responsible for making the decision to approve or deny the water rights transfer application.

In response, Judge Raymond Romero of the 5th Judicial District Court in Eddy County last week called a halt to the water rights transfers while the conflict of interest question is debated. The Supreme Court issued a motion Monday temporarily overruling Romero and ordering attorneys for both sides to appear April 29 to argue the issues.

The pumping is part of a 2003 water deal to address shortfalls on the Pecos. The state agreed to buy up water rights, taking farm land out of production to reduce water consumption in the Pecos Valley. Some of the water rights were to be transferred to the state’s well field so that, in droughts, water could be pumped into the Pecos to meet downstream needs.

Drought during the last three years has tested the arrangement, leaving the state caught between competing factions on the river. One side, represented by the Gregorys, complains that the state is pumping too much. The other, represented by the Carlsbad Irrigation District, complains that the state is not pumping enough, leaving farmers dry.

Attorneys for the state, in a brief filed late Friday, said Romero had ruled improperly, and that his decision to block the water rights transfers may prevent the state from meeting its obligations to deliver water downstream to New Mexico farmers and the state of Texas. They said no evidence has been presented that Verhines has a conflict of interest.

While the courts sort out the issues, current pumping will continue, said Interstate Stream Commission spokeswoman Lela Hunt.
— This article appeared on page C2 of the Albuquerque Journal

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