Water rights deal pits New Mexico villagers against oilman
Posted 1:49 p.m. Saturday
Updated 1:51 p.m. Saturday
PECOS, N.M. — A battle is brewing between residents of a northern New Mexico village and a Texas oil and gas executive who owns a ranch along the Pecos River.
At issue is a pending water rights transfer that some Pecos residents believe will affect a centuries-old acequia that diverts water for agricultural use.
Once the water is severed from the land, the "option in the future to farm these properties is gone," villager and gas station owner Pancho Adelo told the Santa Fe New Mexican (http://bit.ly/2f3EwTp ).
Several residents have filed protests against the proposal, which calls for transferring 20 acre-feet of water from Pecos resident and Village Council member Herman Gallegos to Benjamin Strickling's ranch. It would mark the second transfer between Gallegos and Strickling since 2014.
Residents say the transfers could limit the amount of water available to farmers and ranchers downstream from the ranch. They say it's hard for the state engineer to regulate how much water the ranch pumps out or ensure that Gallegos stops using the water upstream.
Strickling and his attorney, Kyle Harwood, say the transfer is well within the rule of law and won't change how the water is used. They also say it wouldn't affect the water rights of residents upstream or downstream of the ranch.
"Our goal is and always has been to continue the traditional use of water to irrigate fields to benefit wildlife, control erosion and support agriculture," Strickling said in a statement.
Since buying the ranch from actor Val Kilmer in 2011, Strickling thinned overgrown woodland, reseeded natural grasses and partnered with the Santa Fe Conservation Trust to preserve a significant portion of the ranch. Strickling is a director of the trust.
Under New Mexico law, a water rights transfer cannot harm public welfare, alter water conservation or impair the water right itself. Many of the rights to water from the region's acequias are senior rights, dating to 1698. People in Pecos believe transferring rights away from an acequia weakens it and makes the land more susceptible to development.
"In New Mexico, because we are water-scarce for the most part, all of the water in New Mexico is spoken for," said Paula Garcia, director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. "There is no new water (in a transfer). That water has to come from somewhere."
Ralph Vigil, whose family has farmed in Pecos since the 1840s, says it's difficult dealing with a landowner like Strickling "because he is very, very wealthy, and most people in acequias don't have money to hire an attorney."
Initially, 19 parties objected to the transfer, but about 10 dropped out, unable to obtain legal representation or the money to handle processing fees. Some held community raffles, and Pecos vegetable farmer Wes Thompson is in the process of setting up a legal fund.
Harwood says state water law is designed to protect private interests. While public welfare and water conservation cannot be compromised in a transfer, that area of the law is not well-defined, he says.