Flush The Ditch Taxes

Jerry Ortiz y Pino
5 min read
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Two separate events this year have convinced me that we should do away with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. Not reform it; not elect better people to its board of governors; not seek to improve it in any way. Just wipe it off the face of the planet.

It is one level of government that has outlived its usefulness. Rather than prolonging the agony—allowing the problems engendered by this dysfunctional entity to grow even a tiny bit beyond the disaster it already has created—we should simply torque the required intestinal gumption and put an end to it.
Finito. ¡Ya basta!

I know, I’m a registered Democrat, and for someone of this political persuasion to call for eliminating a form of government, any form of government, is practically heresy. So be it. The Conservancy District and its multifarious follies have converted me. When it comes to this entity, just call me Newt Ortiz y Pino from here on out—the poor man’s avenging angel for less government.

Now many of you, I’m sure, are greeting this topic with blank stares. If you live more than a mile or so from the Rio Grande or are living anywhere in the “Heights,” you will not know of what I am speaking. Feel free to move on to ¡Ask a Mexican!, the movie reviews or the personal ads at the back of the paper.

But if you live in the river’s floodplain, are a landowner in the North or South Valleys, or live Downtown or in any of the “historic neighborhoods,” you are likely a victim of the MRGCD and should at least finish reading this column. It is taxing you, and it is not serving your interests. We must stop it. Here are a few of the many reasons why it is important to do so.

First, all property owners living within the district (it stretches from Bernalillo to Socorro on both sides of the river for a distance of one to three miles depending on the topography) are assessed taxes for the work of the MRGCD. In some cases, this part of your property tax bill may be adding several hundred dollars to the total hit, a hit that the rest of the citizenry living outside the district boundaries escape.

I’m not against taxes. But I
am against taxes for which nothing is received in return. And I am especially against taxes that are used to produce results that are diametrically opposed to my best interests. That is practically a definition of what the MRGCD does with the enormous wads of cash it collects annually from non-farmers in the district; i.e. 95 percent of the people who pay those taxes.

Unless you are using the irrigation water that flows through the complex of ditches and laterals that the MRGCD maintains, you are not getting any benefit from your tax dollars. Try to walk or hike on the ditch banks: You are not welcome.

The district treated an effort to foster the use of ditch banks as trails (or even pedestrian shortcuts for kids to get to school) as if it were a raw usurpation of its “sovereign authority.” No, you are not to use that network of ditches, even though it is your tax dollars that pay for it.

The MRGCD originally said it would cooperate in the ditches-as-trails effort, provided the Legislature change the law to give it immunity from legal liability for accidents occurring when pedestrians hiked the ditch banks. The Legislature did exactly that … and the MRGCD reneged from its prior agreement. Now it has immunity—and still won’t allow ditches to be used as trails.

Well, irrigators must get the benefit, you might figure. At least if traditional irrigation for small farms helps preserve that valuable piece of New Mexico’s heritage, that might justify the continued existence of the Conservancy District, even if it is only a small number who actually use it.

But, in fact, the district benefits more financially when an alfalfa field (taxed as agricultural land at a very low rate) is converted to 12 or 15 single-family residences. Each owner will be taxed at considerably higher rates for residential property.

It is this rapid transformation of agricultural to residential property that has filled MRGCD’s coffers to overflowing—even though it supposedly exists to preserve the agricultural way of life.

If it actually did preserve small farms, it wouldn’t have anywhere near the revenue flow it enjoys from tapping the burgeoning number of non-farmers who live in the Valley. As it is, the Conservancy District is reaping rich rewards from urbanization.

If it were to be eliminated, the small farmers in the valleys would still be able to irrigate. The acequia associations are fully capable of regulating the use of water genuinely needed for agricultural purposes; that’s precisely how it’s done elsewhere in the state.

Irrigation all over northern New Mexico went on for centuries without the existence of a “conservancy district,” especially one that has grown fat and arrogant feeding on tax revenues generated from non-farmers. It’s time to call this fiasco off. Pull the plug.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

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