Legislation may dry up well permits

By Jack King

With water a major issue statewide, the chairman of Clovis’ Water Policy Advisory Board warned Wednesday that residents should be wary of attempts to grant the state engineer crucial powers.
Randy Crowder, the committee chairman who also is an area builder and a candidate for the City Commission, said Tuesday proposed legislation could give the state engineer the power to deny applications for domestic wells.
Crowder said denying the applications could put a damper on development in Curry County.
Currently, the state engineer is required to grant an application for a domestic well — one used for irrigation of no more than one acre of non-commercial vegetation — so long as the applicant meets all other requirements and pays a $5 fee.
A bill introduced this month by State Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Santa Fe, would give the state engineer the power to designate some areas “critical management areas” and the power to deny applications for domestic wells.
A critical management area is defined in the bill as an area where all the water has been “fully appropriated” and new water draws are in amounts sufficient to shorten the life of an aquifer; where water resources are inadequate to sustain well production; or where new draws could interfere with the state’s ability to meet its interstate compact obligations.
Under New Mexico law, rights to specific amounts of water are awarded to users who put them to “beneficial use,” which includes agricultural, municipal, domestic, commercial and industrial purposes. A fully appropriated area would be one where all the water rights have been awarded.
The bill would give the state engineer the right to deny a domestic well permit if the ground water is contaminated or if the location where the well is requested is in a critical management area — unless the applicant obtains a water right.
Cisneros’ bill has been referred to the Senate Conservation Committee, from which it will go to the Senate floor.
Crowder, who said he has no developments outside the city limits and, thus, no financial interest in the question, said he supports giving the state engineer the power to deny well permits to contaminated water, but opposes any other use of the power.
“It’s a taking of private property. If you own acreage outside the reach of a municipal water source, that land is worthless without the right to drill a well,” he said.
“If Curry County were designated a critical management area and they had the power to deny wells on land outside of New Mexico-American Water Co.’s reach, all the housing development outside of Clovis’ city limits could come to a screeching halt,” he said.
Crowder said he prefers the approach of another bill introduced this session, House Bill 102, sponsored by State Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces.
Cervantes’ bill would raise the application fee for domestic wells from $5 to $200, with equivalent increases for shared wells and wells serving subdivisions. The extra money would be put in a “domestic well impact fund” that would be used to purchase water rights to offset the effects of domestic well pumping in critical management areas and for the expense of metering, measuring and administering water uses.
“Using the money to buy water rights from willing sellers is a much fairer approach than the government denying people a well,” Crowder said.
“The only criticism I have of the bill is that it doesn’t require that money from a basin be used to buy water rights in the same basin — so we could pay the fees, but water could continue to be depleted here. Also, it states the money could be used for ‘administering water uses,’ means it possibly could be used for all kinds of administrative purposes, when it should be used only for that program,” he said.
Cervantes’ bill was passed by the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee Wednesday and went next to the House’s Appropriations Committee, the last step before going to the House floor.