Editor's Note - ‘Water wars’

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By Tom McDonald

Last week it was reported that Texas is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to force New Mexico to share more water from the Rio Grande. Texas officials are accusing New Mexico of usurping a 2008 water-sharing agreement by pulling water out of the river before it gets to their state, and New Mexico Attorney General Gary King has countered that the agreement is unfair and that the Texans’ move is “tantamount to extortion.”

The story got me thinking about how this isn’t anything new, that it’s just the latest battle in the ongoing “water wars” of the great Southwest. Moreover, it’s not limited to state battles, it’s all too familiar to certain local environs as well. Like ours.

Physical, legal and political fights over the Southwest’s most precious resource are very much a matter of record. Recent history includes the fight for the rights to Rio Grande and numerous skirmishes over other waterways as well. In the Las Vegas area, perhaps the biggest of all water battles was the one over pueblo water rights. In 1958 the Supreme Court adopted the so-called Pueblo Rights Doctrine, which gave towns like Las Vegas the right to take as much water as it needed for municipal uses, but in 2004 the court overturned that ruling and sent the water rights issue back to the lower courts for more equitable settlements.

In recent years, water rights issues have spurred a number of efforts and initiatives, including the creation of the Las Vegas Community Water Board, which sought to resolve such issues involving the city and other entities (like the Storrie Lake Water Users Association) “without the lawyers.” There have been some successes, but there are also unresolved issues that remain to this day.

There are some delicate relationships between water users. The San Miguel County acequias agreed to de-lawyer their talks with the city of Las Vegas but now they seem to feel as if they’re getting the short end of the divining rod in negotiations for their share of Gallinas River water. Many area farmers depend on acequias for their water, but getting the city’s “leftovers” is problematic. As it gets drier and drier, the city is taking a greater percentage of the river water, leaving the acequias dry as a leftover bone.

One of the biggest issues facing San Miguel County right now is the oil-and-gas industry’s interest in drilling. And a lot of that issue is about water — the millions upon millions of gallons needed for hydraulic fracturing, and the chemical contamination of groundwater that we can reasonably expect to occur.

It’s also reasonable to expect water to become even more of an issue in the months and years ahead. No single snowstorm or strong monsoon season is going to wash away the drought our region is in, so water is likely to become more scarce, and more valuable, in the years ahead.

This region’s best chance is to realize that we’re all in it together, then start acting that way. But in that regard, I’m afraid history isn’t on our side.

Tom McDonald is editor and publisher of the Optic. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 237, or tmcdonald@lasvegasoptic.com.