Intel, New Mexico Propose Water Rights Agreement

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Computer chip manufacturer Intel Corp. and the Interstate Stream Commission have reached an agreement that would improve the company's competitive position while ensuring that New Mexico keeps enough water in the Rio Grande for downstream users and endangered species.

The agreement was presented Wednesday during the commission's regular meeting in Albuquerque. Commissioners decided to postpone action on the agreement until their June 16 meeting.

"I continue to think that this is a good and solid agreement, and I just want to make sure that we have a full opportunity to try to build the support that we need," said Interstate Stream Engineer Estevan Lopez, who has been busy in recent weeks meeting with stakeholders.

Under the agreement, Intel would pay $10 million and transfer nearly 741 acre-feet per year of pre-1907 surface water rights to the Interstate Stream Commission. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough to supply about two households for a year.

In exchange, the commission would relieve Intel of certain obligations the company has under its existing groundwater pumping license to offset pumping impacts to the Rio Grande.

Intel, which operates a manufacturing plant in Rio Rancho, can pump nearly 3,250 acre-feet each year provided that it offsets the effect on the Rio Grande's flow by either returning water to the river or purchasing and transferring water rights to its well field. Most of the water pumped by the plant -- an average of about 3,000 acre-feet per year -- is purified and used in the manufacturing process. About 80 percent is returned to the river.

Intel has been able to meet its offset obligations, but company officials said Wednesday they wanted to find a way to eliminate the uncertainty of pursuing water rights that may be needed in the future.

"By removing that uncertainty, we can go back to what is really our primary function, which is making semiconductors," said Frank Robinson, manager of facility operations at the Rio Rancho plant.

Intel first approached the Interstate Stream Commission more than three years ago. Lopez said it took about two years to come up with an idea that would benefit both parties, and negotiations followed.

The commission is planning to offset most of Intel's future depletions that are not already offset by return flows using the acquired water rights and water relinquished under the Rio Grande compact.

There are limits to what the commission will offset. For example, it will not be responsible for offsetting any pumping that occurs after 100 years or depletions that result from excess pumping by Intel.

Lopez said a major benefit for New Mexico will be having control of additional water rights and funding, which will be used to bolster the state's strategic water reserve and to complete projects that would benefit endangered species that depend on the river.

"For the relatively small investment that the state makes, the state gets huge benefits, and the benefits are not just monetary," Lopez said.

For agricultural and municipal interests, the agreement would remove Intel from the market as a major competitor for surface water rights.

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