ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s a controversial change to an old tradition in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
For generations, people have come to know and love the long stretches of wide open ditch banks bordering farms and homes. The ditch banks have become a place where a lot of local residents walk, bike, ride horses and more.
But in what some residents call a sudden switch, newly installed gates are changing that access.
It isn’t sitting well with some residents who believe the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is ignoring their opposition. Meanwhile, the conservancy district says the gates are in response to several problems including vandalism, which they cannot ignore.
Marie Johnson is one of the South Valley residents effected by the gates. She built her home in the South Valley about 21 years ago, near I-25 and Isleta Boulevard. While she says the natural beauty of the local area was a draw, Marie says she bought the property because of the nearby open space she could raise and train horses on.
“The (horse) arena, the ability to have horses, it’s zoned for horses, all of those are the reason that we picked this piece of property to come to,” said Marie.
Horses are a major part of Marie’s life as she raised her kids to participate in horse riding competitions. Her son won a national championship for saddle seat equitation during the 2011 Arabian & Half-Arabian Youth National Championship Horse Show, which used to take place in Albuquerque.
Marie says part of her horses training has always involved taking a ride on the open ditch banks, which run behind her home.
“We bought the property because we like riding on the ditch bank, like to drive on the ditch bank, it’s a freedom that you have,” said Marie. “You’d just take off down these ditch banks and ride for several miles just conditioning (the horses.)”
But those freedoms recently changed in a major way, because of the newly installed steel and concrete gates.
“I can’t exercise my horses on the ditch banks any longer,” said Marie.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District installed three new gates along the ditch banks near Marie’s home sometime in the last few months. The gates sit along the entry way and in the middle of the dirt roads alongside the Norment Interior drain and the Arena Canal. The gates effectively block off much of the ditch banks where Marie used to train her horses.
“It’s impossible,” said Marie, who usually drives horses with a cart attached behind the horse.
The gates were also installed with virtually no notice of the specific timing they’d be posted. While Marie says she was approached by a neighbor who was circulating a petition in favor of the gates, she says she was unaware any kind of decision was going to be made. A few small signs were also posted near a few the location of some of the gates. The signs said, “This area is requested to be closed to motor vehicles,” and encouraged anyone with comments to write or call the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.
“There was no public meeting held,” said Marie. “They put up all these gates and my lifestyle is gone like that.” Other horse owners who live along nearby ditches say they heard even less than Marie did, and never saw the signs.
“No one was notified, I was not notified, I wasn’t even petitioned to sign anything,” said Barbara Peters, who’s lived in the Albuquerque-area her entire life.
Barbara says for years, she’s also used the ditch banks to drive horses while riding on a cart.
“This is why we moved down here,” said Barbara.
Another horse rider, Paula Holmes said she didn’t find out about the gates until she ran into one on the path.
“I was not expecting it,” said Holmes.
The horse riders told KRQE News 13 that the new ditch gates are a problem because there is no way to go through, or get around them.
“Once you come across one of those gates you’re stuck, and if you can’t turn around on a narrow ditch, you’re stuck,” said Paula. “It’s closed to all vehicles, not just motorized vehicles, because you can’t get through here with any vehicle, not a jogging stroller, not a regular stroller, nothing with wheels can go through here.”
Even if the horse riders who tow carts had access to the keys to the gates, they say it would be too dangerous to open the gate, while maintaining control of the animal.
“You can’t leave your horse to go over and open a gate,” said Paula.
While the new gates are designed to allowed horses to walk through a special cut-out section in the middle, Marie says it’s not worth the risk to the “show horses” that she trains. She says the horse could hit its leg on the lower metal bar, and hurt itself.
“All of these horses are athletes and so you take care of them just like you’d take care of a human athlete, and their legs are extremely important because that’s how they move,” said Marie.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District owns and controls access to the ditch banks in the South Valley. While the agency has the ultimate control over the property, it’s also a public agency. Much of their funding comes from nearby homeowners, who pay to maintain the ditches, even if they don’t necessarily irrigate from them. The conservancy district says the gates are a response to increased problems.
“It’s not the sleepy little South Valley anymore,” said Hamman.
Hamman says the district has had an ongoing problem with ATV riders using the ditch banks for fun. He says the problem is similar to one that existed in Albuquerque’s North Valley years ago.
“There’s a group of folks that don’t care,” said Hamman.
The district says the problem was captured in a video recording, taken by a neighbor. Recorded over a series of months, the video shows many people, some who are clearly young, riding the banks for fun. Some of the video shows riders go on and off the path, kicking up dust and speeding.
The conservancy district says some ATV riders are even grinding tire treads out of the sides of the ditches, which causes damage that needs to be repaired. The district says it spends about $3 million dollars of its $20 million dollar budget each year cleaning up illegal trash and tire dumps and weeds district wide.
“They don’t think about the damage they’re causing,” said Hamman. “Overtime if there’s too much use and inappropriate use, it’s incumbent upon the district to take action to address that.”
The neighbor who shot the video of ATV riders also circulated a petition to add the gates, claiming there are growing concerns with a list of issues including safety, vandalism, crime, dust, noise, wildlife and the district’s financial liability.
“We tried our best to make sure the word got out,” said Hamman.
While the conservancy district says it believes many people heard about the gate plan, it’s clear that not everyone saw the
petition. A map created by the conservancy district charting properties for and against the gates shows numerous property had no recorded answers, including properties where Marie Johnson, Barbara Peters and Paula Holmes live.
KRQE News 13 asked why the conservancy district didn’t hold a public meeting before it installed the first gates.
“Well, we installed just three of the planned ten or so gates to begin to control the immediate problem that we were facing on the main artery, the Arenal Canal, and to give folks a sense of what the gates would be,” said Hamman.
Hamman says the gates were installed in accordance with the district’s board-approved “gate policy.” Online public meeting notes also show that district staff brought up the issue of problematic ATV riders and the possibility of installing gates during district board meetings in May and July 2016.
Regardless, Hamman says the conservancy district will now hold a public meeting on the subject, and to introduce the
district’s master plan to install another 7 or 8 more gates. The district also needs about $50,000 to finish the project. It is planning to ask the New Mexico State Legislature for capital outlay funding to complete the project.
Hamman says while the district still encourages people to enjoy the ditches in their neighborhood, he says the gates are merely a response to a problem.
“That’s the consequences of doing business in today’s urbanizing are and we’re willing to accept that responsibility,” said Hamman.
For some in the horse riding community, the public process behind the installation of the gates so far doesn’t feel right.
“I just wish the Rio Grande, MRGCD, would listen to all of the neighbors and not just a few,” said Paula Holmes.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District says it is listening and remains “open to other suggestions.” However, neighbors still aren’t sure they’ll be heard.
“I don’t feel they’re interested in public opinion at all,” said Marie Johnson. “If someone doesn’t stand up and express their concerns we’re going to lose all of this.”
The conservancy district will hold the public meeting on the ditch bank gate plan on Tuesday, November 15, 2016, starting at 6 p.m. at the Los Padillas Community Center at 2117 Los Padillas Rd SW in Albuquerque’s South Valley. Click here for a copy of the meeting agenda.