I was recently invited on a Zoom call regarding cannabis legislation in New Mexico. The two legislators sponsoring a legalization bill, HB 12, were present, along with representatives from the Laguna Pueblo, criminal justice advocates, as well as water rights and cannabis activists.
I was made aware of the potential legalization of cannabis through a phone call from a California cannabis grower looking for information on water rights on a farm property in my area.
As a commissioner of my local acequia, my name was given to him by a real estate agent. That strange call woke me up to the fact that cannabis legislation in New Mexico could bring more trouble to an already troubled rural population.
I have been a commissioner of our 13-mile-long acequia, serving 5,000 acres, for four years. As such, I have witnessed the difficulties we have raising the funds to maintain our gigantic 200-year-old infrastructure, and getting the parciantes (those who have land with water rights) to pay their water quota and abide by the common rules that guarantee everybody gets their fair share of water.
The five irrigation ditches in our valley have been in litigation against a large private elk ranch upstream that purchased water rights from a parciante in Pecos, and which is pumping water from the Pecos to irrigate pastures for its herd. Such ranches often have a $10,000-20,000 price tag for an elk hunt for fly-in, out-of-state-millionaires.
Defending traditional irrigation water rights from impairment is a costly undertaking, draining our state’s acequias’ financial and human resources. The Office of the State Engineer, the agency regulating water rights in New Mexico, already has its plate full of litigations stemming from protests by individuals, or acequias, whose water rights are being impaired by rights transfers and illegal use.
The way water rights laws work in New Mexico is that somebody can buy water rights and transfer them to a well, or pump water from a river for their commercial use. When a legitimate water rights neighbor files a protest claiming impairment of their senior water rights, the illegal user is allowed to keep pumping water until the case is addressed and resolved, and it can take a year, or many more, for such a resolution to occur.
Wealthy landowners, such as developers or billionaire Texans setting up hunting lodges in our area, have unlimited financial resources to hire water rights attorneys to defend, or prolong, their case.
In many ways, traditional water rights farmers are currently engaged in a war of attrition against commercial interests with a lot of financial resources and absolutely no respect for traditional culture.
In many areas of New Mexico, it is legal to sell water rights attached to a piece of farmland, resulting in the farmland being retired. No more water is available for that piece of land in the future unless the owner can purchase (should we be allowed to speculate on water, our commons?) water rights from another farm, which will lose its traditional ancestral water rights.
Unless local acequias write it in their bylaws that water rights cannot be separated from the land, this practice is further deteriorating the fabric of rural New Mexico by destroying what’s left of an agricultural tradition that has sustained the Hispanic population for hundreds of years and Native people for thousands of years.
Cannabis growers need a lot of water and their money will soon be spent purchasing water rights from parciantes who do not think of future generations, but have only greed and self-interest, or desperation for money, in mind.
Rushing a cannabis bill without a thorough enquiry into the effects commercial cannabis has had on other states’ rural populations is downright reckless. Rushing a bill for the sake of generating tax revenues, stating that these tax revenues will later be distributed to support equity in rural areas, is like allowing a drug dealer to sell dope, taxing the dope dealer to get funds to pay for your kids’ rehab.
This seems to be how shortsighted legislators are, as demonstrated by never having consulted with the councils of the 23 tribes in the state, nor with the commissioners of our state’s 600 registered acequias, which could be affected adversely by such legislation.
It is imperative that the general public be made aware of the potential repercussions on our rural economy, food sovereignty and uniquely diverse traditional New Mexico culture, of such new legislation in a state that already ranks very poorly in terms of food security, poverty and drug abuse.
Under the radar of COVID, it seems that this bill was being rushed through, motivated by commercial interests that don’t have the best interests of our local rural population in mind.
For those of you concerned about preserving our traditional way of life in rural New Mexico, food security and food sovereignty, I urge you to get involved. It is evident that legislators are operating in a vacuum, and there are rising concerns from acequia commissioners, as well as tribes, who are not only struggling to distribute water during a drought, but haven’t even been consulted!
This is a time to call your legislators, to ask them to address issues that they are ignoring, driven by interests other than the protection of the rural population they are supposed to serve.
The legalization of growing cannabis in our state could bring devastating effects on our rural areas that are already riddled with problems. As cannabis is now recognized as a medicine, worthy to be legalized and explored as a potential boost for our local agriculture and economy, we should not be shortsighted and blinded by quick money, but instead think wisely, with seven generations in mind, before making decisions that will affect them.
What use will traditional people’s farmland be if there are no more water rights legally attached to their land?
Where will our food come from when more and more farmland is retired due to the sale, or loss from abandonment, of water rights?
Poki Piottin is commissioner of the Vado de Juan Paiz Ditch Association in Dilia, along the Rio Pecos. He’s also president of the Mil Abrazos Community Land Trust, a nonprofit permaculture education settlement.