Historically, there has been a thriving agricultural community in and around Las Vegas, based on the acequias — which can be understood as both physical structures to deliver water and communities of people with a proud tradition.
In the 1950s, the New Mexico Supreme Court gave the City of Las Vegas the right to take as much water as it needed from the Gallinas River under the so-called Pueblo Water Rights Doctrine. Using this decision, the city gradually increased the amount of water it diverted from the river until it was sometimes taking all the water available.
For the acequias, this was a disaster. During the summer months, when ranching and agriculture need moisture the most, farmers could no longer rely on water even during normal, non-drought years. Local agriculture started to disappear.
In 2004, the state Supreme Court realized it had made a mistake and revoked its previous ruling. However, it decided that the city had relied on this right for decades and told a lower court, the 5th Judicial Court in Roswell, to work out a fair, or equitable, remedy. The issue today is whether the lower court only has to make sure there is a remedy for the city or whether an equitable remedy requires sharing among all water users.
Both the city and the acequias believe that how this conflict gets resolved may well determine whether the city can grow, the viability of local agriculture, and the very culture of our community.
Since 2004, lawyers have been fighting over how to resolve this. In 2008, the city, the acequias, Storrie Project and other key players agreed to forget the lawyers and try to negotiate a solution. The court agreed to postpone the case and the parties started talking.
For any number of reasons, most of the ensuing meetings took place between the city and the acequias. In 2009, a one-year water sharing agreement was reached. While it was not perfect, it did show that it was possible for the city and the acequias to work together.
Nevertheless, it took longer to reach agreement in 2010, and the court decided that progress was too slow. It ordered legal proceedings to resume, despite the fact that the legal approach had failed for decades.
All parties have signed a confidentiality agreement so I cannot describe here the details of the negotiations. However, it is possible to describe the basic position of the acequias and a part of the city’s position because both these positions were stated before the negotiations began or in public documents. The city wants the right to divert water in times of low river flows, before the acequias get any of the water. This would mean that during low flows the city could take most if not all the water from the river, leaving little, if any, for farmers and ranchers.
The acequias — the lifeblood of agriculture in San Miguel County — believe that, under low-flow conditions, there should be a rotation between the city and the acequias. Thus, in normal years, the city and the acequias would share both the times of abundance and scarcity.
Recognizing the need for the city to have enough water in times of drought, the acequias have also said that when the city’s water reservoirs fall below a certain level, the city would be allowed to take all the water available.
But that isn’t good enough for the city. We’ll explore that next week.
Curtis Sollohub is treasurer of the Rio de Las Gallinas Acequia Association. He may be reached at email@example.com or (505) 425-8552.