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Court rules against Albuquerque’s water rights

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque lacks legal rights to some of the river water being used in its new drinking water project, the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

The court ruled that the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority does not have legal water rights to native Rio Grande water being diverted along with its imported San Juan-Chama water, which is now being used for Albuquerque’s drinking water. The impact of the ruling is unclear. The court’s ruling suggests the Water Utility might be able to continue using the water if it gets the appropriate water rights. In the meantime, the court ruling does not require the Water Utility to stop using the water.

The ruling applies to water the utility pulls from the Rio Grande at its diversion dam at Alameda, on Albuquerque’s north side. Half of the water pulled from the river has been imported from the Colorado River Basin via the San Juan-Chama project, and the other half is native Rio Grande water. The court agreed that the utility has the right to use its San Juan-Chama water in this way. But it questioned the legality of the use of an equal amount of Rio Grande water.

The Water Utility argued in legal filings before the New Mexico Office of State Engineer that the diversion of Rio Grand water does not amount to a “use” under the law because an equal amount is returned to the river at the utility’s southside sewage treatment plant. But the court ruled that even if the “consumptive use” of the native Rio Grande water is zero, the Water Utility still needs state water rights approval to use the water rights in that way.

How that might be done remains unclear. I’ve got calls out to essentially every water lawyer in the state, and I’ll have more in tomorrow’s newspaper.


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