Playing fair:
Need transparent, easy-to-understand water rights laws

In more than 35 years of watching greater Albuquerque grow and sprawl beyond its means, I've never seen a serious, dollars-and-cents attempt to deal with the price we pay for unbridled development.

But quite suddenly, and very late in the game, the City-County Water Authority, not in existence 10 years ago, is saying that a massive, politically anointed development, Mesa del Sol, must agree to pay the price for the rights to its water, despite Mesa del Sol's adamant assertion that water rights went with the land and the development agreement with the city it made nearly 14 years ago.

And so it goes with water in New Mexico.

Have we finally reached the moment when we have to take the relationship between water and growth seriously? Perhaps we have. But how do we do that fairly?

Is it possible to change state laws that allow cities and developers to build and grow on the mere promise of attaining water rights, like Rio Rancho and many developments have? That's the first step in a fair process.

Can we stop cutting secret deals, using confusing numbers and units of usage to befuddle citizens? Can we stop using water as part of a package of perks to lure industries and builders?

Is it possible to create a truly transparent water rights process, in which everyone - private well-users, big developers and businesses, such as Eclipse and Tesla Motors - has to play by the same water rules?

Can we stop the development wars between the sprawling West Side and the in-filling East Side; between the county and its West Side interests, such as SunCal; and the city and its infill interests, such as Mesa del Sol?

Is it possible to move existing city and county development strategies away from promoting rampant growth to focusing on sustainability and conservation of resources?

Will citizens ever be able to actually peer into the obscure workings of a major water power in our area, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, and bring light to its invisible but vital history of deals and other administrative curiosities?

Is fairness possible? That's a big question. Former Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca, an original supporter of Mesa del Sol, argued recently in his blog, "Only in New Mexico," that if Mesa del Sol gets tangled up in new water rules, then all development on the West Side should stop until all its water rights are cleared up or acquired.

If a major project such as Mesa del Sol should end up in court over water, "a whole box of Pandoras," as then-Gov. Bruce King used to say, will be opened.

All the conflicts of interest, shady dealings, outright lies and deceptions about water that have plagued the Albuquerque area for years might actually see the light. Maybe that's the only way to fix the mess we are in.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
April 27, 2007