Friday, March 24, 2023

Battle Over Water Rights Clouds Senate Cannabis Bill


By Robert Nott The Santa Fe New Mexican

Representatives of the New Mexico Acequia Association want the House of Representatives to right a wrong they believe the Senate committed when it comes to the state's new cannabis laws.

Members of the Senate voted 20-19 to support new legislation in Senate Bill 100 that would no longer require cannabis producers and manufacturers to prove they have water rights for their businesses.

The Senate vote, which took place late Monday night, revolved around removing a paragraph requiring those rights. Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, introduced the amendment during a Senate Judiciary hearing over the weekend.

On Monday, the Senate body voted to back that move.

That provision was one of the keynote components of a lengthy and complicated quest to legalize the production, sale and use of recreational cannabis for adults over 21 during last year's legislative session. Retail sales are scheduled to begin April 1.

"That paragraph was something we advocated for really strongly last year as part of the agreement to pass the Cannabis Regulation Act," said Paula Garcia, executive director of the acequia association. "When you get a cannabis license, you should demonstrate you have valid water rights."

She said her group was "blindsided" by the late-in-the-legislative-session action and had no time to intercede or comment on it.

Pirtle's short amendment says the state can revoke cannabis licenses if they find a producer or manufacturer does not have rights to the water being used in the business.

Pirtle said both in that committee hearing and again on the Senate floor the water rights requirement is stopping a lot of the smaller microbusinesses from getting into the fledging industry.

He said he knows farmers who lease from other farmers with water rights but who can't prove they have water rights themselves.

"It's unnecessary red tape," Pirtle said during the Sunday committee hearing. "It’s already illegal to pump water and grow corn as opposed to cannabis or any other plant. It adds unnecessary burden on other licensees, especially on microbusinesses."

He and other senators noted cannabis operators in urban areas can simply tap into existing urban water utility systems and provide proof of access.

That is unfair to rural operators who may have to hire water rights lawyers to research land and water deeds that go back more than 100 years, Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, said in supporting Pirtle's amendment.

Sen. Linda Lopez, who cosponsors SB 100, said it isn't just the state acequia association expressing concerns about the rule.

"Other communities have concerns about the availability of water," Lopez said. "There are other crops that use much more water in a drought situation. This is something very astute, to make sure applicants are showing have access and rights to the water that can be used for this product."

As New Mexico lawmakers began laying out rules for legalizing recreational cannabis this year, many brought up the issue of water rights. Accessing those rights can be difficult in a state with complicated laws divvying up a limited supply of water.

A domestic well on private property does not satisfy the requirement.

On top of that, New Mexico continues to be in a megadrought that threatens to contribute to a serious water shortage.

According to the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer's Office, the agency has received 35 cannabis business applications for review and verification of water rights.

Garcia said the amendment opens the door to people illegally tapping into other people's water, particularly in rural areas.

Since the bill has to go through at least one House committee next before going to the House for a final vote, she's hoping those committee members will work to put the original water rights provision back in the bill.

With the 30-day session ending Thursday, the bill's chances for moving forward are unclear.

"This is an important water policy issue," Garcia said, adding the state engineer, or some state water entity, has to be involved to act as a "referee to determine what constitutes water rights and what does not."

The bill would allow those opening micro cannabis businesses to increase the number of plants they can grow from 200 to 1,000.


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