By Thomas Garcia
QCS Senior Writer
One way for rural communities and smaller entities to protect their water rights and interests is to band together, said Blair Dunn, attorney with Western Agriculture, Resource and Businesses Advocates.
Land and water-rights issues and options for constructive and profitable uses of those water rights were the topics covered Friday at the Quay County Fair Barn by Dunn, attorney Matthew McQueen and Beth Mills, conservation director with the New Mexico Land Conservancy.
A group of 40 attended the event, including state legislators, farmers, ranchers, and city and county officials.
Dunn said it is important to keep the water rights tied to the land for agricultural use. He said when water rights are sold for municipal use, it is often transferred from that land and it limits any future agricultural development.
Dunn said one major issue facing New Mexico landowners is critical habitat. He said currently in Otero County, ranchers are locked in a battle with the U.S. Forest Service that have blocked cattle from accessing water along the Agua Chiquita Creek that is home to the meadow jumping mouse that is scheduled to be listed as an endangered species.
Dunn said ranchers are being fenced off from the water source because officials fear the cattle will drive the mouse from its habitat.
“They are being denied access to water and land they have been grazing since the 1950’s,” Dunn said.
“There is a current concern for Quay County concerning critical habitat that stems from an application for non-consumptive water rights south of the Ute Lake Dam to the state line,” said cattle rancher Tom Sidwell, who explained that the Interstate Stream Commission submitted the application to the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer. He said the application asks for water control of the Canadian River and tributary sources, including Revuelto Creek below Ute Lake Reservoir to the Texas state line.
ISC officials stated the application was vital to ISC efforts to ensure its responsibility to provide water for the continued survival of the threatened Arkansas River shiner, which has a habitat south of the reservoir on the Canadian River. The application for control of the water will allow ISC to designate the seepage from the dam at Ute Reservoir as a Strategic Water Reserve that is needed to ensure the continued survival of the threatened species and prevent the declaration of a critical habitat by the federal government.
Sidwell said in similar situations on the Pecos and Rio Grande rivers, the ISC has purchased or leased senior water rights but has chosen not to do so in this instance. He said another concern is that there is language in the application that states the ISC will not require landowners to release water or restrict them from the collection of water along tributary sources.
McQueen said another issue of concern is to ensure the farm or ranch land is passed on to the next generation of owners.
“This is hard to accomplish as the average age of today’s farmer is high,” McQueen said.
McQueen said farmers and ranchers want to save their land for their children “but many of our children are not pursuing that lifestyle.” He said one option for landowners is a conservation easement.
McQueen said the conservation easement offers great flexibility, yet provides a permanent guarantee that the land will not be subdivided or developed.
An easement selectively targets only those rights necessary to protect specific conservation values, such as water quality or migration routes, and is individually tailored to meet a landowner’s needs, McQueen said, adding that land subject to a conservation easement may be worth less on the open market than comparable unrestricted and developable parcels.
Because the land remains in private ownership, with the remainder of the rights intact, an easement property continues to provide economic benefits for the area in the form of jobs, economic activity and property taxes, according to McQueen.
“This can help to get the land into the hands of the people who want to work the land and make beneficial use of it,” McQueen said.
Mills said the conservation easement may take away the right to subdivide and develop the land but it leaves intact rights, including water and mineral rights. She said the land remains in private hands and can be passed on to the next generation or sold.
“A major misunderstanding about conservation easements is land ownership,” Mills said. “The landowner still owns the land and it can be passed down or sold. The only restriction is that the easement is permanently in place.”
Mills said throughout the state there are 70 easements ranging from 300 to 30,000 acres. She said 25 of those easements are on ranches still in operation.
The forum was sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Arch Hurley Conservancy District and Quay County.