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Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Ownership Still Fluid on Rio Grande Water System

(CN) - The 10th Circuit has put off for another day a decision regarding whether the state or federal government controls a New Mexico water distribution complex.

The decision relates to a 1999 lawsuit from six environmental groups seeking to prevent rehabilitation of the Rio Grande Project, for the benefit of the Rio Grande silvery minnow and southwestern willow flycatcher.

The environmentalists' lawsuit sparked a dispute over whether state or federal entities control the project, with the state-run Middle Rio Grande Conservation District asserting its rights over the water works, which encompass several dams, and hundreds of miles of canals and ditches.

The system had lacked maintenance since the water district went bankrupt after building the system in the 1920s and 30s. Although the environmental groups - led by Defenders of Wildlife - challenged work on the water distribution system, they aligned themselves with the federal government against the state's quiet title claim.

The property in question, which includes El Vado Lake in northern New Mexico, was subject to a blanket easement granting the federal government control in 1953, although the easement was not officially executed until 1962.

The state agency argued that federal officials' questioning the extent of the easements in the 1980s and 90s meant that it retained rights to the water system, leading it to stake claim in 2002.

The Denver-based 10th Circuit agreed with the lower court that the water agency's claim was barred by the 12-year statute of limitations under the Quiet Title Act but ruled that the district court lacks jurisdiction over the case.

The appellate court remanded the case with instructions to vacate concession of the quiet title claims to the federal government, noting that the status of the water properties "must await possible future judicial resolution."

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