- Associated Press - Friday, September 12, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Farmers from a narrow strip of fertile land in southwestern New Mexico are accusing the state’s top water management agency of violating their constitutional rights.

The group is threatening to sue the state engineer’s office over a mandate that calls for metering devices to be installed along the Mimbres River.

State officials say the meters are necessary as drought continues, but the farmers argue the metering program shouldn’t involve them giving the agency unchecked access to their private property.

Buddy and Deanna Eby said the state engineer has been fining them $200 a day since late March for not agreeing to an easement on part of their property and installing a meter to monitor the amount of water they pull from the river to irrigate crops and pasture land.

Because of the dispute, the couple have been unable to divert water for months and has lost their crops.

“It’s about private property and it’s a matter of protecting our Fourth Amendment rights, our right to the expectation of privacy,” Buddy Eby told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “That’s the whole issue. We’re not against metering.”

In their notice of intent sue, the farmers contend the state engineer’s office has attempted to “extort an agreement from ditch users that among other things allows … unfettered, unnoticed access to all corners of these people’s private property.” The letter goes on to say the agency has refused to negotiate over the metering agreements and has used the threat of drastic penalties against water users.

The state engineer’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the pending litigation. However, the agency has said metering water in basins throughout the state has become increasingly important because of a lingering drought and increasing demands.

Thousands of groundwater meters have been installed along the lower Rio Grande in recent years. Meters are also monitoring use in areas around Santa Fe and in the Chama basin.

In May 2013, State Engineer Scott Verhines ordered meters installed in the Fort Sumner basin in eastern New Mexico. He issued the order calling for meters along the Mimbres River the next month.

At the time, he said: “The drought has placed tremendous pressure on New Mexico. To lessen the impacts, we must maximize our water supplies. In order to protect everyone’s water rights, we need to know exactly how much water is used.”

State officials say many ditches in the upper and lower Mimbres have already been metered voluntarily.

The Eby family said many farmers in the valley were forced to sign the metering agreements.

“This is a statewide issue,” Buddy Eby said. “This affects all people on acequias, and we believe there should be a statewide metering agreement that protects all. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

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