News Feature | June 4, 2014

Feds, New Mexico In Water Rights Dispute

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


The federal government is clashing with New Mexico over who regulates a small spring-fed stream. 

"Decades in the making, the dispute in Otero County centers on whether the U.S. Forest Service has the authority to keep ranchers from accessing Agua Chiquita, which means Little Water in Spanish. In wet years, the spring can run for miles through thick conifer forest. This summer, much of the stream bed is dry," the Associated Press reported

The squabble is "the latest dispute over federal control of land and water in the West," according to the AP. 

The fight escalated after the U.S. Forest Service installed locked gates to prevent cattle from nearing the water source. The Service argued that it is protecting the environment. But county officials argue that the feds are violating ranchers’ rights. At one point, county officials considered cutting the locks. 

"The Forest Service says the enclosures are meant to protect what's left of the wetland habitat. Forest Supervisor Travis Moseley said the metal fences and gates simply replaced strands of barbed wire that had been wrecked over the years by herds of elk," Reuters reported

Gary Stone, leader of the Otero County Cattleman's Association, stressed the urgency of the situation. 

"If we let them take over our water rights, that's the first step. Then we would have nothing left here," he told Reuters.

The dispute has become highly politicized. "The county commission [has pushed] for a congressional inquiry into the battle over water rights and access in the Lincoln National Forest," the Associated Press reported in a separate piece. 

Republicans are calling the dispute an example of federal overreach. 

"These disputes could be easily avoided if federal bureaucrats would stick to their constitutional oath and respect property rights," said Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM, to Reuters. 

Image credit: "New Mexico," josephleenovak © 2003, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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