Water rights:
Urban development must be curbed to meet water needs

Imagine you live in a farming community and find out that overpopulated Albuquerque has exercised its powers of eminent domain and condemned your water rights to serve its needs, paying "just compensation," of course, for bleeding you dry.

Or, imagine the river water you depend on to irrigate has been diverted to provide drinking water for a city that won't control its growth.

Those are scenarios that worry citizen water planners and that could cause hard feelings to boil over into legal battles pitting cities and developers against agricultural New Mexico in the legislature.

A disastrous urban/rural water schism would be less likely if two major issues are addressed properly this year: the use of eminent domain by municipalities to condemn water rights; and the thoughtful opposition to Albuquerque's Drinking Water Project, using San Juan/Chama water, in a lawsuit by a coalition of environmental and agricultural interests.

House Bill 393 and Senate Bill 401 would strip municipalities of the power of eminent domain under the Metropolitan Redevelopment Act.

Passage of the bills could regrettably block the city/country Water Authority from using eminent domain to force a California water utility in Paradise Hills to sell its holdings to Albuquerque. But it would also curtail the grievous possibility of cities' condemning agricultural water rights to feed growth.

In a speech last December at the Annual Congreso de las Acequias, a meeting of the New Mexico Acequia Association, community water advocate Janet Jarratt said, "given their present statutory power, municipalities would trump all other interests with their vast jurisdiction, assuming the upper hand over interstate compacts, smaller towns, agriculture, the environment, and historic and cultural water uses."

"Such supremacy effectively moots all water and land use planning, both regionally and statewide," she said. "Quite simply, it is the power to seize the very life blood from each of us. There can be no `just compensation' in such disparity."

HB 393 and SB 401 would eliminate this disaster.

When it comes to Albuquerque residents drinking water from the river, not the aquifer, a little-known legal dispute brings everything into question.

A protest coalition of irrigators and others is taking the Drinking Water Project to the State District Court of Appeals next month.

Their case is scientifically and intellectually convincing, if not politically strong. They contend that diverting San Juan Chama water from the Rio Grande for drinking purposes would so shrink the volume of river water that it will damage agricultural water rights, riparian habitats and groundwater levels in the Albuquerque area. And, they argue, that might make it impossible for New Mexico to meet its obligations to deliver water to Texas. I'll write about this complicated issue in future columns.

Big city folks forget New Mexico is a rural state. Threatening rural water with ever-expanding cities will lead to no good for anyone.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
February 2, 2007