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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Guest Blog: Support Acequia Trails Bill

This is a guest blog by Ellen Dornan, who is an independent educational media producer and public lands advocate in Albuquerque. She served on the Ditches With Trails steering committee as a citizen representative from 2007-2008.

Imagine a system of shady, quiet trails, open for hiking, dog walking, birding, biking and horse riding. Imagine people strolling under ancient cottonwoods, past historic farms, enjoying the burble of fresh water racing past. Imagine such a trail system right in the heart of Albuquerque, stretching the length of Bernalillo County. Such a trail system exists, to the delight of many Valley-dwellers, who blithely take to the acequias daily with pets, children, friends, or alone; many not knowing or caring that they are trespassing on the property of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

Senator Dede Feldman has introduced a bill this legislative session that would legitimize the acequia trails, and provide for a modicum of safety and cleanliness for trail users. And it won't cost taxpayers any more money. The catch? It diverts one half of one mill per dollar assessed on residents in the Conservancy District AWAY from the MRGCD, to fund a recreation program. The Conservancy District is hopping mad, and so are some very vocal residents.

Does this bill make sense? Considering the long history Senator Feldman has had in trying to move recognition for recreation forward with the Conservancy District, it certainly does. When Albuquerque neighborhood associations and the Mid-Region Council of Governments began their Metropolitan Area Transportation Master Plan, many residents wanted to include the ditches as trails or routes, but the Conservancy District demurred, saying that they couldn't invite people to use the ditches, because the MRGCD could be held liable if someone had an accident (and they do, thanks to substandard crossings and crumbling ditch banks). So Senator Feldman took their case to the legislature, and got them a liability waiver. Again, the MRGCD puts off addressing recreation, calling for extensive planning instead. So Senator Feldman goes back to the legislature and gets planning funds for an steering committee to come up with a feasiblity study.

The committee takes their work seriously, and spends three years conducting pilot projects, and listening to thousands of residents both inside and outside the Conservancy District. The Conservancy District uses some funds to conduct a survey of taxpayers, and the results of both studies are overwhelming: people want these trails, they need these trails, they use these trails, and they would be happy to see their money go to support managing the trails so they are safe and clean.

The Conservancy District's response to this? They overwhelmingly rejected the feasibility report and declared that henceforth, they vow not to catch and prosecute recreationists trespassing on the ditches. This is an agency entirely supported by the taxes collected from Conservancy District residents, that diverts most of that tax money to supporting irrigation for a steadily decreasing number of farmers, mostly in rural Valencia and Sandoval Counties. As Bernalillo County grows, residents need the greenspace more and more; Albuquerque's thickly settled river valley sees ever fewer farms, and ever more recreationists. But the Conservancy District told all these thousands of people that they should pay their money and shut their mouths. NOW does this bill make a little more sense?

For what it's worth, the diverted recreation funds would go to the City of Albuquerque Open Space Division, which has a pretty good track record of managing cultural and undeveloped properties alike, managing for multiple uses, staying on top of maintenance issues, and responsiveness and transparency vis a vis the taxpayers for whom they are also working.

The bill is currently in front of the Public Affairs Committee, and may get a vote early this week. If it passes, it will go on to the Senate Finance Committee. As it stands, only two of the PA committee members, Eichenberg and Griego, are strongly in favor. The others are wavering, because they've been hearing from some haters out there. So call!! Write!

Link to the Public Affairs Committee page

Link to the Legislation

This is a guest blog by Ellen Dornan. If you'd like to submit a piece for consideration as a guest blog, contact me by clicking on the Email Me link on the upper left-hand corner of the page.

February 8, 2009 at 12:28 PM in Guest Blogger, Local Politics, NM Legislature 2009, Recreation/Open Space | Permalink

Comments

Did something get edited out? I've read and reread "The Conservancy District's response to this? They overwhelmingly rejected the feasibility report and declared that henceforth, they vow not to catch and prosecute recreationists trespassing on the ditches." Can someone put this in context as I thought the liability waiver took care of the trespassing issues?

Posted by: Scott Hale | Feb 8, 2009 6:36:18 PM

Sorry to be obscure; I'll try to clarify. Short answer: no, but it should have.

Long answer:
The Conservancy District indicated that they would allow recreation if the liability waiver was passed, but then the complexities of getting into the recreation management business must have seemed unappealing.

Legitimizing recreation, ie including recreation as part of their operational mission, would mean trail and facilities maintenance, responding to neighborhood association's demands for improvements, educating users to minimize risk due to conflicts.... etc.

The feasibility study the MRGCD board rejected outlined ways to handle those issues, including different models for approaching citizen involvement (getting volunteer groups to adopt sections of trail), and different models for partnerships, included because of the various state/municipal/county/neighborhood interests involved. The MRGCD board seized on the parts they didn't like, and used it to reject the program wholesale.

At that particular meeting, some of the board members got very scornful about having a need for a recognized recreation program because it happens anyway. I think it was Jim Roberts who joked that he promised he wasn't going to send patrols to throw people off the ditches, so what does anyone care about making it "official" or not.

But the use extends far beyond issues of getting prosecuted by imaginary MRGCD ditch cops. It's really about keeping the ditches open and flowing.

As recreation becomes the primary use of the ditches and irrigating ceases in importance, the MRGCD has the option to shut those ditches down and sell them off to adjacent landowners. If recreation is a part of their mission, then they can't do that. I have heard dark speculation that the MRGCD would rather close and sell miles of ditches through Bernalillo County then get stuck managing them and maintaining them for recreation.

Posted by: Ellen | Feb 8, 2009 8:51:05 PM

"The catch? It diverts one half of one mill per dollar assessed on residents in the Conservancy District AWAY from the MRGCD, to fund a recreation program."

This isn't quite clear. What percentage of the total revenue of the MRGCD does this represent? It seems to me that the city of Albuquerque should at least be required to provide matching funds for maintenance.

If the members of the Conservancy District are really overwhelmingly in favor of this, why, in the three year interim, haven't they elected board members who reflect that view?

If you had a lovely big back yard, and strangers decided to use it for picnics, and in addition ordered you to provide a trash barrel and a portapotty, would you be thrilled?

Posted by: TnT | Feb 9, 2009 12:57:12 AM

Thanks for the clarification. I think.

This whole thing is a mess. And confusing as hell. And hard to support, but not because it's a bad idea--it's a great one, conceptually, if for no other reason that the trail system is already in place with no land acquisition costs. That's huge, and what usually kills trails projects.

I feel the whole process has been poorly managed. Somehow a lunatic opposition fringe is getting out ahead of supporters and throwing negative and anecdotal "facts" (many dishonest--all unsupported) against the wall and somehow most are sticking. DWT propenents and supporters had no effectual counter to RGBNA on the first go around. It looks like the exact same thing is happening again. I do feel that one of the biggest problems with the first go around was that the forever delayed feasability study was incredibly weak and gave the MRGCD Board what they needed to do what they did.

I'd do anything to support this project (legitimizing trail program) if I just had a cleaner view of what I am supporting and asking others to support.

Two things would help.

The first is simple--a draft comprehensive talking point type letter that I could cut and paste and forward to committee members (and distribute for others to do the same). Even though I have talked to Senator Feldman, DWT members, attended the 3 day workshop, dozens of recreational ditch users as well as adjacent landowners, and had some really ugly "discussions" with the RGBNA Board, I'm still not comfortable that I know what I am really supporting vs. what I want to support which is a formalized trail system that supports the needs of all greater Albuquerque constituents.

The second item is more problematic. This bill in its present form reeks of the old Manny/Ray way of doing business. I'm not sure I like the Senate reaching into the funding of an independent, elected entity and tweaking their funding to enforce their will. I know why it is being done, and I guess I agree with it, but it sure doesn't make me feel very good about that as it smacks vindictive. I'd prefer a cleaner process and a precedent for the future, not more of the same. I am fully aware that the latter may not be possible, but that doesn't make supporting this any easier. Or right.

Ellen, thanks for the post and response. You've clearly defined why you are supporting SB222 and it reasonates. If this somehow passes the Public Affairs committee, I hope you will be able to post a counter to the negative myths the opposition has put out. That just might make a difference on what is certain to be a much tougher comittee in which to garner support. I'd also be very interested in your thoughts on the whole senatorial influence/manipulation of an independent agency issue.

Posted by: Scott Hale | Feb 9, 2009 1:26:42 AM

In American machinist lingo, 1 mil is one thousandth of an inch. I imagine that she is referring to a thousandth place holder as a percentage. That would be .001%.

Posted by: qofdisks | Feb 9, 2009 8:52:23 AM

I think some of the answers you all are looking for are addressed in Senator Feldman's recent email newsletter.

About people having lovely big backyards, read the letter Feldman links to about residents having problems with trash & vandalism on unmaintained ditch segments:

I got e-mail from one constituent in the area of Garfield School recently, which gives a little before and after story of why this bill is necessary. I've posted it on my bog at <http://senatorfeldman.typepad.com>.

About how much a half a mill would amount to, and how it would affect the MRGCD & debunking the RGBNA claims:

Meanwhile, there is a lot of misinformation going around about how the measure will impair the District's ability to pay for the Army Corps of Engineers levee project. The price tag on this could be as high as $120 million, but Congress has not even authorized this project, and it is years in the future. This levee project is a result of new FEMA requirements post Katrina, and I am helping the District and other local entities figure out how to get the funds. The Corps is asking that the project be 100% federally funded, and it is likely that the feds will bear the brunt of the cost. The bottom line is that MRGCD can afford to pay for both trails and contribute to the levee rebuilding project. SB 222 would direct less than 10% of total MRGCD tax revenues toward the trails program. And, for the past few years, the District has had cash balances of about $20 million. They are lucky they are not a state department this year-- or these cash balances would be "swept up" to meet the state financial crisis in a minute!

Also, opponents say that this will result in the ditches being "paved." Not so. I, like most other residents of the Valley, favor retaining the rustic nature of the ditch system, and do not favor paving trails. Decisions on exactly what improvements, if any, would be made to individual ditches would be decided through the collaborative process used to create a management plan.

The difference from the present situation is this: The Conservancy District would have to be more collaborative and accountable. Taxpayer dollars could be used to fund improvements to local ditches; neighborhoods and volunteers would no longer have to foot the entire bill. I think that's the least they can do for us-after all, we are paying the lion's share of the bill for the multi-county district.
And those of us in Senate District 13 are paying the most of all.

I agree that the Ditches With Trails feasibility study could have been stronger, which is why we asked the MRGCD board for a public comment period, so we could get comments and revisit sections that didn't work.

Shah issued the deadline at a time when DWT hadn't even gotten final reports from the contractors who managed the North Valley Design Workshop, but wouldn't let DWT move it back a month, so we could include everything. I have heard (anecdotally) that the whole thing was rushed through at the end of the process because they wanted to shoot it down, and the rejection of the feasiblity study was a foreordained conclusion, no matter what the RIo Grande Boulevard Neighborhood Association did.

Posted by: Ellen | Feb 9, 2009 9:00:12 AM

Sorry, link above should be:

I got e-mail from one constituent in the area of Garfield School recently, which gives a little before and after story of why this bill is necessary. I've posted it on my blog at senatorfeldman.typepad.com

As for the MRGCD elections, Bill Turner and his coalition did take some seats in the last election, promising to change the way the Conservancy District does business & address issues relating to urbanization, including recreational use.

But turnout for the elections is usually among the lowest for all elections-- board members often get elected by under 5% of the eligible voters. So one thing people could do is get informed & get out and vote this June 2.

However, there aren't yet any pro-recreation candidates. The filing deadline is April 4, and the requirements are not very strict. Sounds like a great job for someone! MRGCD election info.

Posted by: Ellen | Feb 9, 2009 9:20:34 AM

Senator Feldman writes, "Also, opponents say that this will result in the ditches being "paved." Not so."

BUT I went to the link and read the letter from Ian Ford. He writes, in part:

"...What's needed now is to get all agencies - the Conservancy district and the police in particular - to start recognizing that all the ditches are public rights of way and..."

AND if these trails are declared public rights of way, they WILL eventually be paved so that the disabled in wheelchairs can access them. This is still a very sticky problem.

Posted by: TnT | Feb 9, 2009 10:04:04 AM

Some of these kinds of sticky issues are what took three years to sort out, with the feasibility study. It's also why a single agency with clear objectives, protocols, and procedures for addressing these issues has to manage recreation, if it's going to be legally acknowledged.

What DWT decided after talking to thousands of people was that development had to be done in response to need (e.g. a neighborhood association says, this needs to have better wheelchair/stroller/bike accessibility, or more trash cans or whatever) and when possible, improved accessibility for trails & bank stablization should use modern soil stabilizers rather than pavement or concrete liners.

The one exception would be when pavement is necessary to provide protection for underground structures, like drains & pipes.

Posted by: Ellen | Feb 9, 2009 1:06:57 PM

I live next to a ditch in the South Valley, and I've read this thread. And re-read it. And just read it again...and I'm still not swayed one way or the other. I agree policing in the ditch areas could be better (our ditch area is a veritable museum of SV gang graffiti), but we're already doing "recreation" in these areas.

Do I trust a new entity to police better while not "sprucing up" and destroying what makes the ditches great to being with? Or am I better with the Ditchrider Devil I know? Okay, I'll be honest, I haven't seen a Ditchrider in years.

I'm like several of those above, confused and undecided. I also notice that its issues like this that test one's Socialist/Libertarian sensibilities. Is it better to police, or would the police only make things worse?

Posted by: scot | Feb 9, 2009 7:37:04 PM

Ideally, the managing agency (whoever that would be) would act in response to neighborhood needs, and the neighborhoods or service groups in the area would do their part by organizing cleanups & ditch patrols & letting the agency know when/where there is a problem.

I know my Girl Scout troop is psyched to clean the trails but I haven't been letting them partly because of substandard crossings & ditch banks & partly because I don't think the Girl Scouts would like me to knowingly trespass with a bunch of children. But it's a shame, because it's the safest way to get around our neighborhood for walks.

We have worked as a troop doing service work for the City of Abq Open Space folk, and they have some fantastic coordinators; I believe it would be possible for them to help neighborhoods organize their own systems for keeping the ditches safe, according to local need. Maybe that's too optimistic, but like I said, I really liked working with them, and there's a lot of good energy in that department.

Posted by: Ellen | Feb 9, 2009 9:11:31 PM

UPDATE!!!
I just checked, and the Public Affairs Committee has SB 222 on the schedule for tomorrow, February 10, after 2:30 pm. It's a pretty full schedule, so who knows if they are really going to blow through all that legislation before dinner, but if you're going to call, tomorrow is the time to do it! One way or another, make your voice heard!

Posted by: Ellen | Feb 9, 2009 10:22:31 PM

I'm not sure I understand the opposition to paved bike paths along the ditches. It's exactly what the bosque bike trail from Alameda to Rio Bravo is and it has non-paved paths running alongside, as well. I don't think it detracts from the nature of the area at all.

Unless this is becoming a walker vs. biker thing and here we go again. I do both, love both, and love having paved bike path options available. Albquerque and the surrounding area could be a national model if there was support for more paths and trails.

I look back to my home state of Ohio where there's many rails-trails projects that paving long stretches of trails the length of the state. If I compare the affect of those trails on the rural nature, it's neglible. In fact, it pales in comparison to all of the housing development that is enroaching rural lands - the exact same thing that is happening here in Albq.

So, yes I support whatever it takes to open access to these area and to fund improvements, maintenance, etc. And I support a good mixed use of these areas, otherwise, they become exclusive to one subset of the population.

Posted by: Del Duncan | Feb 10, 2009 8:35:34 PM

This email was just sent by Senator Feldman:

SB 222 passed the Senate Public Affairs Committee overwhelmingly yesterday. Thanks to all of your for your help. Now we are on the the Senate Finance Committee. I will send the members' contact information soon.

Tonight (Wednesday), I will appear before the Village of Los Ranchos, which appears to oppose this bill. Any help there would be appreciated, either through speaking at the meeting or via letter or e-mails to them.

We have now garnered endorsements from the North Valley Neighborhood Coalition, about 5 neighborhood associations in the South Valley, the Metropolitan Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, and the City of Albuquerque.

Posted by: Scott Hale | Feb 11, 2009 12:54:32 PM