As drought conditions erode the water supply throughout New Mexico, ranchers have become concerned over whether they can utilize sufficient water to profitably maintain their operations. The recent placement by the United States Forest Service of a fence preventing some property owners from receiving water from a particular creek, known as Agua Chiquita, in Otero County has triggered a dispute between these ranchers and the Service.
Officials at the Forest Service have stated that the purpose for the fence is to keep cattle away from a habitat that is in recovery. An environmental report produced in 2006 regarding the Lincoln National Forest prompted the Service to declare 23 acres of a 28,860 acre parcel off limits to cattle grazing. In order to nurture the wetland area in the vicinity and aid the recovery of threatened species, the Service concluded it needed a steel fence with several locks to replace a barbed wire fence which elk had managed to overrun.
While it appears only one ranching family is directly affected by the loss of downstream water from the Agua Chiquita, the principle that ranchers holding water rights dating to before 1907 – as is the case for many families in Otero County – should have access to the water, including the portion downstream of the fenced-in area, should be defended, according to other ranchers in the county. These protesting ranchers see no reason why the principle should not also apply in the context of federal lands. Ranchers also fear that the preservation of the wetland will dry up the already scarce water available to their ranches.
As the United States Attorney Office has indicated that it is willing to mediate the dispute, there is some optimism the conflict can be resolved through negotiation. With the scarcity of water in the area increasing, it is likely that such disputes between the riparian rights of New Mexico ranchers and the environmental protection of local habitats will continue to surface.
For advice on land use or farming matters before making any purchase or transaction, contact the attorneys at Giddens & Gatton Law, P.C. Giddens & Gatton Law, P.C. is located at 10400 Academy Road N.E., Suite 350 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Call the office at (505) 633-6298 to set up an appointment or visit the firm’s website at giddenslaw.com should you have any questions concerning the use of any land for farming or other purposes.