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Progress seen in water settlement talks; Possible bifurcation of immediate, long-term concerns mentioned

State Engineer Tom Blaine, front left, says his staff is optimistic that talks between the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District, the Carlsbad Irrigation District and other parties will avert a big problem in 2019. He and some staff members visited the PVACD board Tuesday prior to heading to Carlsbad. General counsel Greg Ridgley is at right. Interstate Stream Commission Director John Longworth sits behind Blaine. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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State Engineer Tom Blaine said he is hopeful from ongoing settlement talks that a 2019 priority call on Pecos River waters can be avoided even as drought conditions continue throughout the state.

“We try to do everything we can before going to a priority call, and I will continue to do everything I can even up to the day, if a priority call happens,” said Blaine. “I am very optimistic about the way settlement talks are going and some things we are talking about. Are we there yet? No.”

Blaine, head of the state department that determines water usage and rights in New Mexico, was in Roswell Tuesday morning to talk with board members of the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District, one of the parties involved in a complicated, long-standing lawsuit over Pecos River waters — the Lewis Litigation — originally filed in 1956 but taking many iterations over the years even after some agreements were reached.

Blaine and others from the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer were scheduled to attend a similar meeting later Tuesday with board members of one of the defendants in the suit, the Carlsbad Irrigation District.

Settlement talks between the Pecos Valley and Carlsbad districts have been going on for years and may continue to do so, Blaine said. The talks also involve the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Interstate Stream Commission. Typically various members of those groups meet at least quarterly.

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John Longworth, director of the Interstate Stream Commission, said a new development arising from the talks is the possibility of bifurcating 2019 water usage concerns from long-term issues.

“We can’t solve both at once, so we are looking at the immediate versus looking at the long-term,” he said.

Board member Dick Smith said another sign of progress is that PVACD has done a better job of reducing Pecos River water use in accordance with prior agreements reached in the case.

He also noted that the district has purchased water rights within the Carlsbad district to lessen impacts on locals should a priority call occur.

With significant drought in the area, the likelihood of the Carlsbad district making a priority call next year has increased.

“If we have another winter like we did this past year,” Blaine said after the meeting, “it will be very difficult to administer water rights.”

A priority call would mean that farmers, ranchers and businesses who are part of the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservation District would have to wait until the Carlsbad district, typically considered to have senior rights to the Pecos River, has received all of its allotted water.

But there is debate over who has senior rights. According to PVACD board members, thousands of acres in the local district can claim water rights from earlier dates than those asserted by the Carlsbad district.

Blaine said his office is in the process now of developing a list of water rights and priority dates to use in case of a priority call.

Absent such a list, he said, his office uses whatever information it has on hand to determine who has rights and the order of those rights.

“If we had the resources, it (the list) would already have be done,” he said. “That is a continuing work in progress.”

Discussions also occurred over whether additional water usage should be allowed from the Carlsbad underground water basin. State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn and some PVACD board members oppose new allotments.

Blaine was unwilling to commit to barring future claims, saying that language of the state constitution favors allowing the usage of water for “beneficial” use.

“Closing a basin is a draconian method of just stopping all appropriations when, in fact, there may be areas that water can be appropriated without impediment,” he said.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.