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Newsbites – May 2014
More Young and Hispanic Farmers in New Mexico
A new U.S. Department of Agriculture survey shows a significant increase in the number of young and minority farmers in New Mexico over the past five years, as well as more farms and ranches. The average age of the principal farm operator in the state is 60.5. However, the number of farmers and ranchers under age 34 jumped from 818 to 1,200.
There are more than 24,700 farms and ranches in the state, according to the 2012 agriculture census. That’s an 18 percent increase since 2007, which is contrary to the national trend. The census found that farmland in New Mexico has remained at about 43.2 million acres. The number of minority-operated farms also rose over the past five years, especially in the Hispanic community. Hispanic-operated farms were tallied at 9,300, up from 6,400.
The USDA defines a farm as any place that produced or sold at least $1,000 worth of agricultural products during the census year. Nurseries and greenhouses are also classified as farms. Agricultural products in New Mexico rose to $2.6 billion in 2012, a 17 percent jump. Livestock, poultry and their products accounted for 76 percent of the state total.
Watershed Groups Call for Court of Appeals to Throw Out Copper Rule
The New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) has filed an appeal against the adoption of the Copper Rule—a rule that regulates discharges from copper mines. The brief argues that the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) violated the state’s Water Quality Act when it adopted the rule and asks the Court of Appeals to set the rule aside.
The Water Quality Act mandates that the WQCC adopt regulations that prevent or abate water pollution, but the Copper Rule expressly allows all copper mines to pollute New Mexico’s groundwater with acid rock drainage, metals and other toxic contaminants.
“Given that 65 percent of our state is currently in severe drought or worse—including Grant County where Freeport McMoRan’s massive copper mines are located—our decisionmakers should be developing rules that protect groundwater. The law is clear in New Mexico: water is a public resource, and it must be protected,” says Bruce Frederick, NMELC staff attorney.
Opposing parties have 75 days to respond to the filed brief. The Court of Appeals could take a year to decide the case.
Taos County Water Rights
About 400 Taos County properties have recently had their agricultural status revoked. Over the past year, the County Assessor’s Office has determined that those properties are no longer being used for farming, sending property taxes skyrocketing. Those landowners may also be at risk of losing their water rights because of New Mexico’s “use-it-or-lose-it” water code. Water rights and the tax discount may be lost if land isn’t irrigated; but if acequias (ditches) aren’t maintained and newcomers aren’t interested in farming, it becomes problematic to irrigate land. Water rights may also be deemed “abandoned,” if they have been unused for a number of years, or if they have not been used to grow some kind of crop or for livestock.
At a time when urban development along the Río Grande is seeking water wherever possible, acequia parciantes see this situation as a potential threat to their age-old tradition in which land and water go together. They say that landowners should not be penalized because of the drought that has prevented some acequia users from irrigating.
There are some statutory protections in place that give acequia commissions the right to approve or deny the transfer of surface-water rights from a ditch-irrigated property. Acequia water-rights holders can also “bank” rights that are not being used, if the owner plans to claim the right in the foreseeable future. Further legislation to prevent long-time residents from being taxed off their lands and to protect the region’s agriculture and rural character is being discussed.
Recommendations from the Statewide Water Town Hall
“A Town Hall on Water Planning, Development and Use,” organized by New Mexico First and attended by more than 300 people from 31 counties last month, found that New Mexicans want a balanced water policy that plans for future shortages, expands water storage and reuse, addresses legal issues and protects environmental resources. They want to explore the potential of cleaning up brackish (nonpotable, highly salty) water in our aquifers. Attendees included business leaders, industrial water users, environmental advocates, researchers, municipal water planners, farmers and ranchers, government professionals, elected officials and students.
The following strategies were identified:
- Implement long-term collaborative, comprehensive, watershed-scale restoration projects to foster healthy ecosystem function and resilience, including wildfire-protection plans.
- Improve the state and regional planning process including dedicated funding, consistent data across regions, and the best available science on current and future water supply.
- Develop emergency plans and sharing agreements to address allocation of water during times of shortage.
- Fund and initiate new water supply and storage projects such as aquifer storage and recovery, reclaimed wastewater, surface water storage, stormwater capture and water-delivery enhancement.
- Improve the funding process for water investments, including better coordination among funders and improved leveraging of revolving loan programs, grants, user fees and federal funds.
- Clarify the processes for use of brackish water, as well as use and reuse of nonpotable water used in oil and gas drilling.
- Increase the efficiency and timeliness of the adjudication process, while also strengthening the water market through clear and fair water-right-transfer policies.
The recommendations will be advocated to state and local leaders by an implementation team comprising volunteers from the event led by former State Engineer John D’Antonio. A full report is posted at nmfirst.org
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