Water bank policy OK’d

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Farmers irrigating land on which water rights sold will face
curtailments in 2013

Albuquerque
As a response to what is shaping up to be another year of water shortages, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District directors approved a new water bank policy on Monday.
The new policy will curtail irrigation to farmers who are watering land without water rights when water supplies drop below river flow and storage benchmarks set by the district’s hydrologists. Up until now, all irrigators shared MRGCD ditch water equally, even in times of shortages — including those farming land on which the owners had sold the water rights.
The water bank is a way for MRGCD to lease unused surface water to irrigate “dry” farmland within the district that someone wants to bring back into agricultural production. The amount of water available for lease depends on the amount of land within the MRGCD boundaries that has been retired from irrigation.
According to the MRGCD Revised Rule 23, the water bank’s purpose is to promote agriculture and water conservation primarily, and quality of life and environmental needs secondarily.
Until now, the district has delivered water equally to water bank lease holders and irrigators who had not sold their water rights, even in times of drought. This past year was exceptionally dry, and questions of fairness brought the matter to the attention of the district board, according to MRGCD director and San Antonio farmer Chris Sichler.
“I got a lot of comments last year, like ‘I didn’t sell my water rights, so why do those who did get to water?’” Sichler said. “You don’t have to sell your rights, and you have to weigh the consequences when you consider selling.”
The new policy was published online and in local newspapers to satisfy statutory requirements for public input, yet only three comments were received by the Nov. 12 deadline, said Dr. Charles DuMars, the district’s chief water counsel.
In response to one of the comments, the proposed water bank policy was amended to differentiate between pre-1907 water rights users and those whose rights were perfected by the state engineer about 20 years later when the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District was instituted, DuMars said.
Exactly who has what kind of water rights is a legal quagmire. According to state statute, holders of pre-1907 water rights have priority to river water. Owners of these “ancient” water rights can sell them to the water bank at a higher value, and irrigators who buy them will be able to irrigate ahead of other water bank users in times of shortages next year.
However, the district does not have the authority to determine which kind of water rights irrigators own. The state engineer determines this question only when the water rights are sold, so the only way someone can claim a pre-1907 right is if a potential sale was terminated after the state engineer had ruled on the status of the water right, but before the actual transfer had taken place.
Many landowners have had consultants examine the history of their property, and based on continuous beneficial use have had their water rights “declared” as pre-1907 rights by the Office of the State Engineer, DuMars said. However, since only the courts can adjudicate the statue of water rights, leasing a declared pre-1907 right will not be sufficient to establish priority over other irrigators under the new water bank policy.
The district hydrologists have published a table on the district’s website listing the amount of water needed to irrigate all of the land currently holding valid water rights, both in upstream dams and in the river.
When next year’s irrigation season begins March 1, MRGCD staff will monitor water levels in the upstream storage dams and at river flow gauges located north of Albuquerque.
When the combined totals fall below the cut-off points, then water bank users will be notified that they have to stop irrigating.
How the curtailment will work is anybody’s guess.
“Shortages have never been addressed in this manner before,” said Tom Thorpe, MRGCD’s public information officer. “This board has been very forward minded. They are looking to the future. A growing population in Albuquerque and the mid-valley puts more demand on the same amount of water. All of us are in for a challenging year.”
Thorpe said ditch riders will be notified of curtailments at the division level, or, if the situation escalates, the Albuquerque office will contact the ditch riders directly by mobile phone. Irrigators can check the MRGCD website for up-to-date water supply information.
“The numbers are updated throughout the day,” Thorpe said.
Socorro MRGCD division manager Johnny Ray Mounyo thinks handling curtailments this coming irrigation season will be a headache because rumors will undoubtedly outrun facts.
“Curtailment has never been tried before,” Mounyo said. “I’m afraid it’s going to cause a little bit of grief.”
Often, neighbors hear of someone selling water rights, but do not realize that the actual process takes some time to complete.
“The state engineer is doing a better job of getting the information to us, but sometimes I hear about it first,” he said. “Talk is faster.”
According to the water bank policy, an irrigator will be fined for unauthorized irrigating. For repeated offenses, the lease could be terminated and head gates locked or disabled to prevent further irrigation.