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City water fight rages on

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Court: Legal case to move forward

By Martin Salazar

The ongoing fight between the city of Las Vegas and the acequias over water rights on the Rio Gallinas rages on, and the battleground right now appears to be the court of public opinion.

Acequia users in recent weeks have used the radio airwaves and the newspaper opinions page to spread their message. Wednesday evening, they went a step further, showing up at the City Council meeting and appealing to the city’s governing body to settle the dispute through mediation rather than litigation.

“I’m merely saying I think the community would be better served with the mediation process versus litigation which has cost us millions already,” said William Gonzales, one of at least half a dozen people who took advantage of the public input portion of the meeting to draw attention to the water dispute.

Lee Einer, coordinator of the farm to restaurant project in Las Vegas, told the governing body that while he isn’t affiliated with any of the acequias, he has sympathy for local farmers.

“I do have an ax to grind as a taxpayer,” he said. “I don’t feel great about $2 million plus being spent on attorney fees...”

Curtis Sollohub told city officials that the acequias want to negotiate but haven’t heard anything from the city.

City Manager Timothy Dodge responded that the city remains open to negotiations, though Utilities Director Kenny Garcia noted that the special master appointed by the court to help with the case has determined that enough time has been spent on negotiations.

“I am still very interested in resolving the case through negotiations,” Garcia said after many of the acequia members had left. “But we also need to respect the special master’s decision and ensure that we’re prepared for litigation. Without  a reasonable decision or negotiations ... the city will be stuck with a lower priority water right, which would severely impact the city’s residents now and in the future.”

Councilman Andrew Feldman took issue with the criticism that the city was using taxpayer money to pay for the lawsuit.

“Previously the acequias were funded by New Mexico Legal Aid, which is paid for from our taxpayer dollars,” Feldman said. “So to make the argument that we’re wasting taxpayer dollars in litigating with the acequias is a non starter because they were ... using a legal defense paid for by taxpayer dollars.

“That is not the case any longer,” Feldman added. “Now that the case has been brought back to litigation by the special master ... New Mexico Legal Aid can no longer defend the acequias because they’re in a lawsuit with a municipality. That’s where this all stands right now.”

City Attorney Dave Romero objected to much of the public input, calling it inappropriate for parties to be discussing the ongoing litigation in such a format. He also cautioned members of the governing body about responding to the comments, saying it could jeopardize the city’s case.

Feldman, however, said he opposed limiting people’s freedom of speech. If people voice their opinions during the public input portion of the meeting, he said, the governing body owes it to them to listen.

The dispute over water rights goes back to the 1950s.

The city had claimed a pueblo water right, an assertion that it had the right to take as much water from the Rio Gallinas as it needed to serve its residents.

In 2004 the state Supreme Court rejected  the city’s claim. But because the city had relied on the Pueblo Water Rights Doctrine for such a long time, the high court remanded the case back to the district court and asked it to come up with an equitable remedy for users.

The issue now appears to be who has priority over water in the Rio Gallinas during drought.

The acequias have long insisted that they have priority because of their senior water rights. Garcia said the city is requesting that 1,200 of the 2,600 acre feet it is entitled to each year have an 1835 priority date, which would give it a senior right on the Rio Gallinas. An acre foot of water is roughly enough to serve two to three average households for a year.

Garcia said the Storrie Project Water Users Association agreed to that.

But some argue that if the city gets what it’s asking for, farmers would be hurt.

Richard Cozens, who uses the Acequia Madre de los Romeros, said not having a steady water source makes it difficult for growers.

What the city is arguing for would deprive farmers of water at the time they need it most, Einer said.

“My concern is that it makes production of agricultural products impossible,” he said.