Only on ABC-7: Ranchers in Otero County say water rights debate harms cattle

Only on ABC-7: Water rights battle in Otero County

OTERO COUNTY, New Mexico - Cattle can lead themselves to water, but can they drink? A fierce debate about water rights is happening in Otero County, New Mexico.

Ranchers near Agua Chiquita, about 30 miles from Cloudcroft, are fighting the U.S. Forest Service after access to the small creek was fenced off.

Water is one of the most valuable resources on earth. A three mile source for grazing cattle in Otero County, New Mexico, is called the Agua Chiquita.

"The winds are blowing, we're in a drought. Sacramento Mountains are dry. So whatever water source these animals can find, they have to be able to get to it," District 2 County Commissioner Susan Flores said.

Ranchers in the area say their cattle can't easily access the little available water because of new fencing and gates in the Lincoln National Forest. Some are secured by solid locks, others are makeshift.

County commissioners are helping the ranchers, and are asking the Otero County Sheriff's Office for assistance . They issued a cease and desist illegal fencing activities letter to the U.S. Forest Service in April.

The U.S. Forest Service's response, written by supervisor Travis Moseley, says the actions of employees are not only legal but within their jurisdiction.

"It's really about these ideas of water rights and private property rights and the allegation that we are restricting those private rights on national forest system lands," Moseley said.

Moseley says fencing has been in the area since the 1990s to protect what they call a riparian area, the creek and its bank. The water in the Agua Chiquita varies, depending on how much water and snow the area gets.

"Last year it actually dried up. But in previous years, it actually had fish, and that was part of the reason why the fencing went up," Moseley said.

Moseley told ABC-7 there's a water gap between creek fencing to allow livestock to get to the water. But ranchers are concerned it's not enough for the hundreds of cattle in the area.

"For the time being, let's get the areas open. Once we know that the cattle are being taken care of and the cows aren't dying anymore of lacking water, we can work on the issues of the riparian area," Commissioner Flores said.

Moseley expects a resolution to take some time, but says that both sides have been respectful so far and know that ultimately they need to work together.

"We all recognize that there are different ideas and value systems at play here. and I respect that," Moseley said.

Commissioner Flores says the issue effects more than just the ranchers' lifestyle, cattles' health and the valuable land.

"These cattle go to market. When you go to the grocery store and buy your beef. To keep decreasing that herd, pretty soon we're going to have to be importing beef," Commissioner Flores said.

As the battle continues, cattle continue grazing the area, while looking for water sources.

Otero County commissioners are holding a regular meeting on Thursday, May 8. On the agenda is a discussion on a resolution that will ask the sheriff to remove locks on gates built by the U.S. Forest Service. ABC-7 plans to be there and will keep you updated on developments.

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