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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
Current Issue: July 7, 2003
Volume 38, Number 23

Water management focus of Utton Center
O'Leary unites experts to create model interstate compact

By Laurie Mellas Ramirez

O'LearyAmid a flurry of litigation in the region surrounding water rights and the endangered silvery minnow, UNM Research Professor of Law Marilyn O’Leary makes a case for staying out of court.

“Litigation is not the best way to resolve these issues. It’s too narrow. You don’t have all the people at the table and all the information that you need,” O’Leary said. “Legal decisions are basically a snapshot in time based on laws and legal claims we have today. When things change we have to go back and try to change a court decree and that can be very difficult.”

With 20 years experience in water and public utility law, O’Leary joined the UNM School of Law in 2001 to direct its Utton Transboundary Resources Center, which she promotes as having both a mission and a message.

The mission is to use multidisciplinary expertise and preventive diplomacy to help stakeholders avoid litigation over water and create sustainable water management plans. The message is: “We’re not going to solve these water issues as individuals. We need to look at not only what we want, but what is good for us all,” O’Leary said.

Created in 2000 to carry on work related to transboundary resource issues initiated by UNM Professor of Law Albert E. Utton, the center is positioned to be a model for the rest of the country and even the world, O’Leary said.

Countries, states, cities, counties and tribes struggle with issues related to resource boundaries. The center fosters conversations that help stakeholders go beyond their stated positions on water allocations, she said.

Last fall, the center hosted its first national conference to address interstate surface and ground water issues. Invited were national experts in law, biology, hydrology, economics and social science, among other fields. The meeting kicked off a five-year process that will result in a model interstate water compact.

“We wanted to break down barriers between science and law so we can work together more effectively and pool our knowledge on water issues. Lawyers had been looking to scientists for the answers and scientists were looking to lawyers. But they were not to be found. The answers will come from us working together,” O’Leary said.

Previous interstate water compacts do not take into account emerging issues such as severe drought and diminished water supply, endangered species and lack of tribal allocations.

A second conference will be organized to address cultural aspects and unite stakeholders across the board, including irrigators and city, tribal and acequia representatives.

“We need to address the different cultures of water that exist in this state – what water means to the different entities represented,” O’Leary said.

The center is a developing resource for the New Mexico State Engineer and Interstate Stream Commission. O’Leary also collaborates on projects with campus entities such as the Water Resources Program.

“We are also interested in working with other institutions in the state and additional UNM departments working on water issues,” O’Leary said.

The center is working with Sandia National Laboratories facilitating use of a lab-created water budget computer model by the Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly, the regional planning group for the middle valley. Celina Jones, law student and trained hydrologist, coordinated the center’s work.

“We need to address the different cultures of water that exist in this state – what water means to the different entities represented.”

Marilyn O'Leary

“It is our goal to involve students in all aspects of our work whenever we can. It is a unique experience to be part of multidisciplinary efforts to solve critical water problems,” O’Leary said.

The center will sponsor a speakers’ series open to the public at the School of Law this fall featuring water experts from the state and Mexico.

Recently appointed by Gov. Bill Richardson to the New Mexico/Chihuahua Border Commission, O’Leary will also lobby for increased binational planning related to water supply and quality.