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Judge OKs Water Rights Settlement

LAS CRUCES — District Judge Jerald Valentine this week issued a final judgment approving a settlement that sets limits on the amount of water available to individual farmers in the Lower Rio Grande Basin.

Under the ruling, farmers with rights to surface water only, that is, water diverted from the Rio Grande, will be allowed no more than 3.024 acre-feet of water per acre per year, otherwise known as the “farm delivery” amount.

Farmers with established rights to surface water and groundwater, or to groundwater only, will be allowed up to 4.5 acre-feet of water per acre annually.

The agreement also provides an opportunity for farmers who want to prove rights to an amount of water in excess of 4.5 acre-feet per acre per year to get up to 5.5 acre-feet in surface and groundwater combined. Those farmers will have to file a notice of intent to do so by Dec. 31, then provide documentation of their usage.

Frank Reckard, special assistant attorney general who represents the state Engineer’s Office in the Lower Rio Grande adjudication proceedings, said the settlement provides “certainty to farmers” about the amount of water they will be entitled to, specifically members of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which covers 90,640 acres of farmland in Doña Ana County.

“It’s important for the state in terms of administration, and for individuals it determines what their water right is worth,” Reckard said.

The state Engineer’s Office did not gain jurisdiction to regulate groundwater pumping in the Lower Rio Grande Basin until the basin was declared in 1980. Because the vast majority of wells were drilled before 1980, there were no limits on how much water could be pumped, Reckard said.

The settlement agreement was reached in principle in June between the state, the New Mexico Pecan Growers Association, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and a group called the Southern Rio Grande Diversified Crop Farmers Association.

The new settlement is a departure from a 2008 agreement between the state and pecan growers, who would have received up to 5.5 acre-feet of ground- and surface water per acre per year under that plan. Other farmers objected to pecan growers receiving a larger amount of water, which led to the new settlement that lowered the standard cap and extended it to all farmers, Reckard said.

“We were always simply after all farmers getting equal treatment,” said Alvin Jones, a Roswell-based attorney representing the Diversified Crop Farmers. Jones added that his group was “very gratified with the way the agricultural interests in the Lower Rio Grande were able to come together to achieve this great result.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal