UNM Law students help land grants, colonias and acequias with legal assistance

The Community Governance Attorney Program, established in 2019, helps colonias, acequias and land grants when they need legal assistance by partnering them with law students. Elisabeth Gutierrez of Las Cruces and Victoria Lovato of Ojo Caliente are third-year University of New Mexico School of Law students participating in the Community Governance Attorney Program. Participants in the program presented the Community Governance Attorney Program’s progress at the Land Grant Committee meeting on Oct. 20 in Chilili. “Today is a very special day because this is a program that took years of work by the (Land Grant Committee) to make this come to fruition,” Mark Edwards of the New Mexico Legislative Council Service said.

What the failed cannabis clean up bill means

Largely overshadowed by legislation addressing crime and voting rights during this year’s 30-day Legislative session, a cannabis law clean-up bill failed to make its way to the governor’s desk. 

SB 100, sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, would have made a series of changes to the Cannabis Regulation Act, which went into effect last June. Those changes included clarifying tax language, allowing certain cannabis businesses to wholesale their products, among other things. One of the more significant changes though was a proposed production increase for smaller cannabis businesses. The bill was praised by those already active in the state’s cannabis industry as well as industry newcomers. 

But early in the committee process, a new change to the Cannabis Control Act emerged: water. The amount of water the new cannabis industry might use has been a big concern for many and part of the Cannabis Regulation Act requires that cannabis cultivators verify they have legal access to water.

Senate passes cannabis law changes, adds new water rights language

The New Mexico Senate approved a bill late Monday night that aims to clean up language of the state’s Cannabis Regulation Act, increase production limits for small cannabis companies and allow those smaller companies to wholesale cannabis to and from other cannabis businesses. 

The most significant changes SB 100 proposes are increasing plant limits for cannabis microbusinesses from 200 to 1,000, allowing those types of businesses to buy, sell and transport cannabis from other companies and allow medical cannabis companies that were previously required to be registered as nonprofits to become for-profit companies. 

After an amendment in a committee hearing the day before, nearly all of the debate on the Senate floor was devoted to water issues, even though the original bill did not address any changes related to water.    

Earlier this week, a Senate committee approved an amendment that stripped a water right verification section from the Cannabis Regulation Act. 

During a Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, proposed removing the section, calling it “unnecessary red tape.”

“There’s one instance of a constituent of mine that was trying to get licensed and they tried to transfer ownership into a separate business so that it didn’t put his farm into liability,” Pirtle said on Sunday. “And it became problematic to prove who has the legal right, who’s supposed to have it, who’s leasing from whom.”

Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, who works as a cannabis attorney, agreed with Pirtle. 

“We have hamstrung this industry with the approach that we took to water in the bill last year,” Duhigg said on Sunday. “I think we got it wrong, frankly, last year, with what we did with water.” 

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, unsuccessfully tried to further amend the bill to include what she said was a compromise in verifying legal water access. Her amendment, she argued, would only require that a cannabis company “demonstrate” that it has legal access to water. But after about an hour of debate, her amendment failed on a 19-20 vote, with a number of Democrats voting against it. 

Most of the pushback on the amendment came from Pirtle who reiterated his comments from the previous day, arguing that it’s already illegal to use water for any agricultural use without legal access to it. 

“You have a water right or you don’t have a water right,” Pirtle said.

USDA crop insurance program cuts benefits to Rio Arriba farmers, acequia-irrigated lands

Last summer, the land where Rio Arriba county rancher Tony Casados grows hay for his cattle produced a bounty. He cut more than four tons from each acre. But this year, he’s seeing just over half a ton per acre. “I’m 74 years old, and in all my years of farming I have not seen a worse year than this year,” Casados said. “We have the acequias, but there’s no water in them.

Bill to protect traditional land uses for land grant and acequia communities advances in the House

A bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and co-sponsored by Rep. Deb Haaland that would help land grant and acequia communities retain access to public lands for traditional uses  advanced in Congress. 

The Land Grant and Acequia Traditional Use Recognition and Consultation Act would require more consultation between the federal government and land grant and acequia groups in New Mexico in public lands management. 

“The legislation will make it easier for land grant mercedes to work with federal land management agencies such as the Forest Service,” Luján said during a virtual legislative hearing in June, by requiring federal agencies “to make land grant mercedes aware of changes to management plans and encouraging agencies to mitigate any adverse impacts due to federal action.”

The bill would also create “a process to allow New Mexico’s land grants to establish their historic boundaries and provides them with pathways for acquiring that land when the federal government disposes of it,” Luján said, and that it would “ensure that the federal government appropriately recognizes spiritual and cultural sites while providing greater tools for land grants to acquire the lands that these sites reside on.”

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the Spanish crown, and later the Mexican government, offered land grants to communities and individuals in New Mexico and across the southwest to promote settlement of the area. The land grants included tracts of communal land that were used for livestock grazing, firewood access and water delivery infrastructure such as acequias. 

After the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which transferred more than half of the territory in Mexico to the United States, the U.S. federal government was tasked with establishing a process for adjudicating the land grant titles. 

Instead, the government sold off millions of acres of communal land, which Arturo Archuleta, program manager at the New Mexico Land Grant Council, said jeopardized those communities’ survival and their agrarian way of life. 

“Our communities included common lands that provided the natural resources needed for our survival. These common lands were never intended to be privatized nor alienated from the communities’ common ownership and use,” Archuleta said during the virtual hearing. 

The adjudication process was “faulty, inefficient, inequitable and in some cases fraudulent and corrupt — oftentimes, with U.S. federal government officials directly involved in the corruption,” Archuleta said. 

“The end result of this unjust process was that millions of acres of common lands were stripped of the ownership of our local communities. Much of these former common lands are now managed by federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management,” he said. 

Archuleta said the bill, the product of 10 years of work between land grant and acequia communities and the state’s congressional delegation, offers “important first steps in rectifying the historical injustices that have crippled our communities for over a century.”

“Over the years, our communities have been placed at odds with federal land management agencies, not by our own choice, but as a direct result of having our traditional use needs ignored — partly because we are not always at the table when land management decisions are being made,” Archuleta said. “The passage of [bill] H.R. 3682 would help ensure federal land management policies and practices regardless of changes in the administration, will honor, respect, protect and conserve our traditional uses now and for future generations.” 

The bill moved out of the House Committee on Natural Resources on July 30 and now heads to the House floor.

This acequia life

From the porch near the house, I see Papa in the distance, shovel on his shoulder, his outline as familiar as his presence. Egrets graze along the water that moves in and across the field, alfalfa plants brightening the morning with a welcoming green. The swallows — las golondrinas — fly down and across the water, grasping at food too small for me to see. And Papa walks his field, slower now with age, his boots soaking up water, wearing them as the only lovely he knows. This originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission.

Photos: Urban sprawl and Santolina

Editor’s Note:

These photos were taken during the reporting of the story on Santolina that ran in New Mexico Political Report on Monday. Look for a video talking about the Santolina Master Plan from those in support of the plan and those in opposition of the plan on Tuesday.