Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Otero County seeks Congress' help in water dispute

Officials from one rural New Mexico county have sent letters to the state's congressional delegation, asking that hearings be held to investigate the actions of the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies as battles continue in several western states over water and property rights. Otero County commissioners said in the letters that the federal government is trampling on people's rights across New Mexico and in Utah, Nevada and elsewhere. They invited the delegation and the chairmen of the House Natural Resources and Judiciary committees to a rally planned for Saturday across the street from the Forest Service office in Alamogordo. "Otero County has taken a strong stance to try to protect our citizens and their rights," the letters read. "To date, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Justice have been unwilling to even reasonably compromise to de-escalate the situation and to work cooperatively." "This appears to be an uncompromising example of government bullying," the commissioners wrote. Decades in the making, the dispute in Otero County centers on whether the Forest Service has the authority to keep ranchers from accessing Agua Chiquita. In wet years, the spring can run for miles through thick conifer forest. This summer, much of the stream bed is dry, and ranchers say their cattle can't reach what little water is left. The Forest Service says the metal fence and locked gate that surround the spring are the results of a decision made in 2004 to protect the wetland habitat. The Forest Service says grazing on public land doesn't automatically ensure a right to the water on that land. The county, its lawyer and other supporters argue that the water belongs to the ranchers. "It is a property right," rally organizers said in a statement Wednesday. "It's time we let the federal government know that we the people understand the U.S. Constitution." Environmentalists have sent letters of support to forest officials, saying the agency has a duty to safeguard water supplies on public lands. On Wednesday, WildEarth Guardians accused Otero County of "thuggery" for threatening to remove the fences. Depending on the outcome of their request, county commissioners have cleared the way for the sheriff to take steps to remove or open the gates at Agua Chiquita...more

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