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Campus News
University of New Mexico experts work to solve regional water issues
August 16, 2004

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Faculty Spotlights

Kelly helps stakeholders avoid litigation

By Laurie Mellas Ramirez

KellyWhen people are at odds over water use, emotions can run wild, like river currents fed by spring rains.

In the Southwest, where waters are more likely to run dry, Susan Kelly, associate director of the Utton Center for Transboundary Resources at the UNM School of Law, uses an impartial, interdisciplinary approach to turn the tide of discontent.

The center’s aim is to help those sharing a water resource manage it within a legal framework rather than litigate it in a court of law, Kelly said.
“We are not stakeholders. We don’t represent any party at the table. It gives us an advantage,” she shared.

A former water rights manager for the City of Albuquerque, Kelly is a licensed attorney who earned her law degree from UNM in 1981.

She is well schooled on issues swirling around water use, including the history of the Rio Grande Compact for New Mexico, Colorado and Texas. Years of below average snow pack runoff and weak monsoon seasons have created a prolonged drought straining the testy transboundary relationship.
She identifies main users of the Middle Rio Grande as bosque growth, agriculture and urban development. Six pueblos are among those with competing water rights, she said.

“The state engineer says that changes in water use in the middle valley must have a no net effect on the Rio Grande, so if one use increases another has to decrease,” Kelly said.

“Endangered species are in a fragile state,” added Kelly, who, while working for the city, served on a subcommittee of the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Act Program helping to develop a proposal to support the needs of the silvery minnow. She is now working with the program using hydrologic models to test options for storage and management of current water allocations. After the scenarios are modeled, the Utton Center will prepare a final report and recommendations, which may lead to institutional changes.

The center is also organizing a by-invitation, three-day water rights conference focused on cultural boundaries and sustainable solutions.