A state bill supported by the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District and sponsored by Sen. Cliff Pirtle (R-Roswell) about water rights records has passed the Senate and now will be considered by state representatives.
“I finally found a bill I could vote for,” Pirtle said after the Senate voted 37-0 Thursday morning for Senate Bill 222.
The approval came after Pirtle had offered an amendment during a Feb. 27 Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, a change State Engineer Mike Hamman indicated was acceptable to his state agency. Hamman had expressed opposition to an earlier version of the bill at a Feb. 16 Senate Conservation Committee meeting. That group voted to forward the bill without a recommendation.
If passed by the entire House and signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the bill would take effect June 16. It would amend the Water Data Act passed in 2019 to indicate that original documents pertaining to water rights or water data will remain in the district office of the Office of the State Engineer where they were originally filed unless, as the bill has now been changed to read, “complete copies of the complete record” are kept in the original district office whenever records are removed temporarily for purposes related to digitizing, abstracting and making the information available on public databases as required by the Water Data Act.
“If some crazy accident happens or something and we lose original records, I just think it is worth putting some protection in place,” said Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe County) about the amended bill during the Feb. 27 meeting.
Pirtle has carried the bill after meeting in October with officials of the Pecos Valley Conservancy District (PVACD), which represents about 100,000 customers and 110,000 irrigated acres in the Roswell Artesian Basin. That basin stretches from north of Roswell to the Brantley Dam area near Carlsbad. The office had learned in fall 2022 of the State Engineer's plan to move all the official water records from the District 2 office in Roswell to Albuquerque and Santa Fe for digitizing, abstracting and inputting information into public databases, as called for by the Water Data Act. Originally state employees said that they intended to keep the records archived permanently in Albuquerque.
PVACD employees, board members and some local residents told Pirtle and other local legislators that the situation was unacceptable to them, given the possibility that records could be lost or damaged or information inputted incorrectly in databases. They also said it would be difficult for some people to access the original records in northern New Mexico.
“It has created quite the panic in my area,” Pirtle told state legislators during the Feb. 27 meeting, “just by the complexity of water rights and the issues that arose in other areas where those records were moved.”
An expert witness testifying at the meeting was Chris Cortez, operations manager and water rights analyst for Atkins Engineering of Roswell.
“There have been instances when documents have not made it to the database online or haven't made it to the database in a timely fashion,” Cortez said, “so the retention of them locally is critical to the ongoing functioning of these offices and making them available to the public.”
Both Cortez and Pirtle explained that they support the process to create public databases, but they also said that complete, accurate water rights records and immediate access can be essential in ongoing court cases, in decisions regarding land or water rights purchases, and in efforts to obtain loans. Incomplete or wrong information could have significant financial impacts, they said. Pirtle also said that the people who would be hurt the most without the statute changes provided by SB 222 would be those who cannot afford to hire lawyers, obtain complete copies of their water rights records or travel to northern New Mexico to access the original files.
Hamman has emphasized at legislative committee meetings that the State Engineer's Office has the expertise and experience to care for the records and has digitized other New Mexico water basin records without difficulties. He did say, however, that he has committed to allowing the District 2 original records to be returned to Roswell once his agency completes digitizing and abstracting work.
Also, as part of the PVACD and State Engineer's compromise, reflected in part by the amended bill, PVACD will be given about six months to coordinate its own digital scanning of all District 2 records prior to the start of digitizing efforts by the State Engineer's Office. PVACD staff and board are considering contractors for the work and whether the cost will be borne entirely by PVACD or perhaps shared by the state.
SB 222 is scheduled to be considered next by the House Agriculture, Acequias and Water Resources Committee.
Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at email@example.com.
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