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Local water rights efforts get additional money

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Morgan Nelson, at an April event in Roswell at which he was honored. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

A local water conservation district has received some additional funds to defend some area land owners’ rights to Artesian Basin waters.

The Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District accepted a $20,000 donation Tuesday from Roswell Artesia Water Users, a group of mostly agricultural producers in the East Grand Plains area.

The group created a legal defense fund in the early 1960s to fight for what they contend are their priority rights to water from the Artesian Basin.

“What we got the money for, we didn’t need it for that,” said Morgan Nelson, 98, a former state legislator, farmer and one of the few remaining donors to the fund.

He explained that the surviving members of the fund decided to give the money, which they have been holding in certificates of deposit for years, to the conservancy district because the district has been waging the lawsuit on behalf of area farmers and landowners for decades.

“At that time, the basin was failing and we had to do something,” said Nelson. “The (State) Engineer was putting meters on our wells, and we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

According to District Board Secretary and Treasurer Dick Smith, the problem arose when the State Engineer’s office ruled in the 1960s that the priority rights of the area landowners dated back only to when the first well to the Artesian Basin was drilled.

But, he said, springs from the Artesian Basin had been irrigating the farmlands long before a well was drilled. So the landowners believe their priority rights should date back to when they could prove that land was irrigated by basin waters. The conservancy district began suing on behalf of landowners and the district in the late 1960s.

“We are talking that more land was being irrigated here than Carlsbad, and we had an earlier priority date,” said Smith, who estimated that about 20,000 acres of water in the area is at stake.

Priority dates matter because if entities can prove they hold earlier rights to water, other people with rights must refrain from using water until those with earlier priorities obtain all their water.

In the case of the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District, many of the conflicting water right issues have to do with the Carlsbad Irrigation District.

Two times in recent years, Smith said, Carlsbad has called for its priority rights on basin waters, although rainfall prompted them to drop one call. Next year could prompt another priority call if drought occurs, he said.

Smith said the district is hopeful that a settlement in the longstanding case, in which one court previously ruled in favor of the Pecos Valley district, will occur sometime this year.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.