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Water Rights and the Public Welfare in the West

by Jack Mattox

The drama and tragedy of the acquisition of Owens Lake and River by the city of Los Angeles early this century to meet its expanding growth were not present at the Socorro, New Mexico, city hall this past August as three sides argued over water rights in the small community of Val Verde. No Jack Nicholson or Faye Dunaway were present ala the Hollywood rendition of the chicanery involved in that water rights "transfer" depicted in the 1974 film, Chinatown. Six days of repetitive and technical hearings in front of a state of New Mexico Administrative hearing officer was the only show in town. But the State Engineer will make a decision later this year that will greatly affect New Mexico's destiny. Even then, even if the three parties desire, the case can be taken into state district court and argued all over again. The Intel Corporation, giant in the computer chip industry, wants more water for its plant in Rio Rancho, a suburb of Albuquerque. Many rural New Mexicans want to keep their water for their future needs. Similar struggles are being played out all over the West as increasingly water moves "upstream to money," as the State Engineer has put it, and rural communities like California's Owens Valley, dry up and blow away.

The case of Intel's bid to appropriate water from downstream is about public welfare as it involves water rights in a mostly desert state. It's about the very American dream of growth in a desert, usually at the expense of those who can't benefit from such growth. A geographic tilt from south to north, from rural to urban, from area of origin to area of rapid growth- all these issues centering on whose version of New Mexico's future should prevail prevail were argued before the Hearing Officer of the State Engineer's Office. The Albuquerque law firm of Sheehan, Sheehan and Stelzner represented Intel; the State Engineer's Water Rights Division is a second party to the case opposing the validity of the water rights to be transferred, and representing third party interests is the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, a pro bono law firm in Santa Fe created 10 years ago to defend people and the environment from illegal acts of environmental destruction.

The numbers are small: nine families seeking compensation for 60 years of unused water rights in Val Verde; the Intel corporation wanting to buy 1149 acre feet of consumptive water rights to offset previously approved rights for their new wells in 1994; and a transaction cost (excluding legal fees) of approximately $1.5 million. So why is this water transfer case so important? Because it could establish a very important precedent for New Mexico by fleshing out the bare bones 1985 legislation requiring transfers not to be "detrimental to the public welfare."

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