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Know the West

Intel Corp. denied desert water rights

  Money can't always buy water, even in cash-poor New Mexico.

Intel Corp., the world's largest computer chip manufacturer, has lost a $1.5 million bid to buy water rights from southern New Mexican farmers near rural Socorro. The company's 1994 water-use permit requires that it buy water rights, then retire them to offset 4 million gallons a day of groundwater that the Intel plant uses in Rio Rancho (HCN, 12/26/94). State Water Engineer Tom Turney denied Intel's request Nov. 15, saying the land where the rights apply has not been irrigated since 1941, and landowners no longer owned the rights they wished to sell. He said the water rights had reverted back to public ownership.

Intel's request highlighted the debate over water use in the West, and particularly New Mexico, where the company has clout in one of the country's poorest and driest states. Last year Intel paid more income taxes to New Mexico's treasury - $41 million - than any other entity.

Attorney Doug Wolf, who opposed Intel on behalf of local water boards and the Southwest Organizing Project, called the turndown for Intel "amazing. They usually get whatever they want," he said.

Advocates for rural water rights had hoped the state engineer's decision would clarify state law that says water must be protected for public welfare. Critics say the state law avoids making judgments about rural vs. industrial uses of water. But the hearings never progressed beyond whether the rights were valid.

Intel's strategic operations manager, Donald Hutchinson, said his company may appeal the decision to state district court. "It's really not his call," he said of the state engineer. "It's really up to the courts." - Jason Lenderman