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NM court asked to decide dispute over Pecos River

Barry Massey, Associated Press

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) -- New Mexico's highest court will consider a dispute on Monday over whether the state's top water manager can decide proposed water rights transfers to increase flows in the drought-stricken Pecos River.

The state Supreme Court is set to hear from lawyers on the state plan to transfer the rights to allow more pumping of groundwater near Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico. The water would go by pipeline into a reservoir where it could be released to boost river flows.

Some area ranchers contend the pumping will lower the underground water table and cause their wells to go dry, which hurts their agricultural operations and property values.

In documents filed with the court, a lawyer for State Engineer Scott Verhines said that without the rights transfers, New Mexico may not be able to meet its legal obligations to deliver water to downstream irrigators and to the state of Texas.

A ranching family wants a state district court — not the state engineer — to decide whether to allow transfers involving about 7,000 acre feet of water rights.

An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons — enough to supply the average yearly water used by four homes in some communities.

Lawyers for ranchers Larry and Norman Scott Gregory argue that the state engineer has a conflict of interest that prevents challengers of the groundwater pumping plan from getting a fair hearing. The state engineer's office proposed the plan in which Verhines would decide whether to deny or approve the water rights transfers.

The ranchers maintain that Verhines should have removed himself from the case. Eddy County District Judge Raymond Romero agreed and stopped the state engineer from holding a hearing last week on the transfers.

The Supreme Court has blocked the judge's ruling while justices resolve the dispute.

A lawyer for the state engineer says there's no conflict of interest and the Legislature granted the state engineer broad powers to administer water use in New Mexico and make judge-like decisions.

Those dissatisfied with actions of the state engineer can appeal the decision to a district court. The state engineer contends that's what the ranchers should do if they don't like the outcome of his administrative decision on the proposed rights transfers.

The groundwater pumping is part of a 2003 settlement by the state and Pecos River Basin water users. The state agreed to buy irrigated farmland and take it out of production to reduce water usage. The state also bought water rights and established wells that could pump groundwater to increase river flows.


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