What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas — at least when it comes to water.
That was the message of several residents attending a state engineer’s presentation this week on the process for allocating water rights on the Gallinas River. They said they don’t want any water rights entirely eliminated from the community.
The state engineer’s office has started sending out packets on its determinations on what water rights each user owns. Users can either agree with the findings or challenge them.
Officials from the office told residents that they are sending the determinations in small batches at a time — a project they hope to complete by next summer.
The engineer’s determinations are by no means final and almost surely will result in years of litigation. In all the years of litigation so far, the state courts have only decided on what Las Vegas is to get in water rights — 2,600 acre-feet a year (an acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons).
The determinations indicate which portions of land have water rights attached and which ones don’t. In some cases, the state engineer will inform users they have no water rights at all.
Officials told an audience of around 30 people at Luna Community College that they based their determinations on decades of historical data. To keep a water right, a user must be able to demonstrate years of “beneficial use” — in other words, irrigation. If that use lapses for a number of years, the state can consider a water right abandoned and eliminate it.
In some cases, housing subdivisions are built on land with water rights. But if the subdivision is connected to a water system and doesn’t take water off the river, it could lose such rights, officials said.
Resident Pat Galligan wondered what happened to the water rights that the state engineer’s office considers abandoned. He questioned whether the community would lose the benefit of those rights entirely.
Ann Carter, an attorney with the state engineer’s office, responded that the Gallinas is a water-short river — with many more rights appropriated than water available. Over a half century, the river didn’t have enough water for all users nearly two-thirds of the time.
Galligan, however, said that if a subdivision is built on land with water rights, then the city should be able to increase the amount of acre-feet it can take off the Gallinas each year. That way the water stays in the community, he said, although he said he wasn’t sure if there wasn’t a basis in the law for such a philosophy.
“What I’m suggesting is that we want a philosophical understanding that the water stays in the community,” he said. “We are a closed basin for all intents and purposes.”
Gabe Estrada, a water user, said the state’s hydrographic studies on the Gallinas have many holes. He noted that many people return to their families’ land after time away and that it wasn’t fair they couldn’t benefit from the water rights that have been used for generations.
“People are coming back to maintain a way of life. Then they have to spend hours and hours defending their rights,” he said, urging the state to take into account the historic and cultural aspects of water use. “The state engineer needs to go back into history.”
Linda Gordan, an official in the state engineer’s office, said users have to demonstrate that they benefitted from Gallinas water.
“You should present the information to the court,” she said. She added that when water rights disappear, the existing users will benefit because they’ll consistently get more.
When asked which entity would get water first in a shortage, Carter said her office would urge the parties — acequias, the city and the Storrie Project Water Users Association — to enter into a water-sharing agreement.
Under New Mexico law, those with the oldest water rights have priority.