New Mexico Limits City Power over Water Rights

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on April 9 signed HB 40, limiting the power of municipalities to condemn water rights, noting it is probably the most important water bill to reach his desk from the recent Legislative session.

“This was not an easy decision – but ultimately it was clear to me that on balance, the benefits this bill brought to state water policy far outweighed its flaws,” Richardson said. “At the same time, it helps preserve our agricultural industry and heritage; it forces our municipalities to think – and act – long term to meet their water needs.

“There are few bills I considered this year that enjoyed such broad-based support around the state,” Richardson said. “From the bill’s introduction to its final passage, its backers met with opponents, made compromises, refined the bill – and at the end it was supported by the agricultural community, the Acequia Association, and by environmental interests. I commend the patience and persistence of Rep. Paul Bandy of Aztec, who pushed and pulled this bill through to passage.”

Richardson pointed out that municipalities already enjoy extraordinary preferential powers under state water law. Most significant is the power to hold water rights unexercised for up to 40 years without fear of forfeiture. With new limitations on the power of condemnation as a backstop, municipalities will be pushed more strongly to be proactive in securing capacity in the marketplace to cover future water needs.

The governor noted that the issue had been a perennial one before the Legislature since 2005, when a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision on municipal use of condemnation for economic development spurred an intense reform debate.

The bill puts water used by an acequia, community ditch, irrigation district, conservancy district or political subdivision of the state beyond the reach of condemnation. In cases where condemnation goes forward, the municipality must meet certain conditions for it to proceed, and mediation is encouraged.

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