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New water powers unlikely to help this year

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SANTA FE – Despite a Supreme Court decision last year giving the Office of State Engineer broad powers to manage water in New Mexico, the tools needed to carry out those powers are not likely to be in place in time to provide widespread help during this year’s drought, State Engineer Scott Verhines said Friday.

Verhines’ office has targeted seven river basins around the state as top priorities for “Active Resource Water Management,” the new program authorized by a November 2012 Supreme Court Decision. Among them is the Lower Pecos River, an area hit hard by drought and a growing water rights battle this year.

The idea behind Active Water Resource Management is to streamline the process used to determine how water is shared in a drought. Approved by the Legislature in 2003, the process was intended to speed up what otherwise takes decades of court hearings to sort out water rights in New Mexico’s river basins.

After nearly a decade of litigation, the November Supreme Court decision gave Verhines the authority to proceed.

But in a talk to the annual Law of the Rio Grande conference last week, Verhines said his office lacks the resources to move quickly on all seven basins simultaneously. “The likelihood of that is not good,” Verhines told an audience of about 100, mostly lawyers, who gathered this week in Santa Fe for updates on the latest water law and management problems on the river.

The new authority would allow creation of water markets to allow users in a basin to more easily trade water to satisfy community needs, and it would allow communities to come up with alternatives to state law’s strict rule of “prior appropriation,” which in a drought means the earliest users get all their water while others are cut off.

But with drought gripping New Mexico, Verhines made clear that we will not see quick application of the new rules.

That includes the possibility of near-term action in the hot spot for New Mexico water conflict, the Pecos River, where Carlsbad-area farmers earlier this month issued a “priority call,” a demand that Verhines cut off groundwater pumpers in the Roswell-Artesia area. The Carlsbad farmers charge that the upstream groundwater pumping is lowering the river, depriving them of water to which they’re legally entitled.

In an interview, Verhines said his office is beginning to collect the information it would need to curtail pumping. But he acknowledged there is no way his office can execute a curtailment in time to improve the water supply situation for the Carlsbad farmers. One problem, Verhines said, is finding the necessary state staff to carry out a curtailment in a hurry.

“We haven’t just had people sitting around and waiting for a priority call so we could jump on it,” Verhines said at Friday’s conference.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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