NEW MEXICO 3RD DISTRICT COURT UPHOLDS STATE ENGINEER, HILLSBORO RESIDENTS AND LADDER RANCH IN COPPER MINING WATER RIGHTS CASE
In a victory for community residents, the New Mexico Third Judicial District Court dismissed almost 90% of the water rights claimed by the New Mexico Copper Corporation (NMCC) and two water rights sellers. [See the article by Laura Paskus]
Jonathan Block, New Mexico Environmental Law Center staff attorney, represented fourteen individuals and the Hillsboro Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association. Turner Ranch Properties’ Ladder Ranch was represented by attorney Tessa Davidson.
Max Yeh, who speaks for the Hillsboro Claimants and assisted Mr. Block throughout the proceeding, said,
“The Hillsboro Claimants are pleased with the decision of the Adjudication Court of the Lower Rio Grande Basin to validate only some 900 acre feet per year (afy) of water rights of the almost 7,500 afy rights claimed for the Copper Flat Mining Project. This county sorely needs the water for other beneficial uses.”
Water rights are notoriously complicated in New Mexico. The Court’s Findings detail a long history of failed and half-hearted attempts by a constantly shifting set of companies to get copper production at the Copper Flats mine, with only three months of actual production in mid-1982. When the mine was closed for good, the water rights were purchased for investment purposes by two gentlemen from Silver City, who were unable to sell the water rights to anyone able to put them to beneficial use. The Court recognized a small amount of past water use for mining and a much smaller amount of additional water rights, but dismissed the “inchoate”* rights which the mining company had claimed.
* “For the purposes of this case, ‘inchoate rights’ are incomplete water rights that had not vested at the time the OSE declared the basin because, although the appropriator had begun development of the rights, the water had not been put to beneficial use.” Court decision at 63-64.