Editor’s note: In the below article, the News-Bulletin quoted Valencia County Sheriff’s Lt. Joseph Rowland as saying there was only one county in the state with an ordinance allowing off-highway vehicles to drive on paved roads.
After publication, Christopher Johnson, the off-highway vehicle education coordinator with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, reached out to the News-Bulletin saying Rowland’s statement was incorrect.
There are currently 13 counties and 25 municipalities that have enacted some sort of OHV paved-road use ordinance, Johnson said.
Valencia County and the five municipalities within it do not have ordinances allowing OHVs on paved roads.
For more information about OHV laws and rules, visit the NMDGF’s website.
A recent uptick of violence on ditchbanks in Valencia County has spurred the sheriff’s office to crackdown on unauthorized activities on irrigation ditches in the county.
In the past week, there have been at least two reported incidents of people either threatening someone with a gun or firing a gun because someone was driving on the ditchbank.
“No one should be threatened or shot at, obviously, but technically a lot of people on the ditchbanks are trespassing,” said VCSO Lt. Joseph Rowland.
While a trespassing charge is a petty misdemeanor, Noah Herrera, 23, of Los Lunas, and Henry Ingram, 75, of Jarales, are facing charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a fourth-degree felony.
Herrera allegedly threatened another man with a handgun after an argument about Herrera speeding up and down the ditchbank.
Ingram allegedly fired a shotgun twice in response to a 13-year-old boy riding a dirt bike on the ditchbank behind Ingram’s home and possibly driving onto his property.
Rowland said deputies were notifying people who were driving on the ditchbanks last weekend that unless they had a key and pass from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, they weren’t allowed on the ditchbanks and could be cited for trespassing.
“The district issues passes and gate keys to people who need access to the ditches to irrigate,” Rowland said.
Complaints of people riding off-highway vehicles, ATVs, and other vehicles creating noise on the ditchbanks are frequent, the lieutenant said, but are low priority calls for the department compared to others.
“We can and will enforce the law and protect their private property like any other resident, but we aren’t the district’s personal law enforcement agency,” he said.
The VCSO will be running a two-day operation this holiday weekend in the hopes of educating people about the laws and keeping the area around the Belen river bridge clear of trespassers.
The sheriff’s office mobile command post will be stationed near the bridge from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday, July 2, and Sunday, July 3.
“We aren’t going to be hauling people off to jail,” he said. “We want to educate people.”
VCSO deputies as well as officers from the New Mexico State Police, Belen Police Department and New Mexico Game and Fish will be patrolling the area. A representative from the MRGCD will also be on hand to answer any questions about their rules, Rowland said.
While the district does issue gate keys to irrigators, the keys are often copied and shared, said VCSO Sheriff Denise Vigil.
“We know people want to go have fun and, no, they shouldn’t be threatened because someone is annoyed,” Vigil said. “However, we’ve had too many incidents on the ditchbanks.
“Over the years, people have been shot, killed, someone had to be airlifted out due to an ATV crash. We just can’t have this.”
During this weekend’s operation, officers will also be reminding people about laws for OHVs, ATVs and side-by-sides — bottom line, they are not allowed on public roads — period.
“In New Mexico the motor vehicle department can issue permits for ATVs to drive on roadways, but there is only one county in the state that has ordinances that allow that. Valencia County is not that one,” Rowland said.
VCSO Sgt. Victor Duran, who is certified by New Mexico Game and Fish on allowable OHV use, reiterated the vehicles are not allowed on public roads.
“They cannot operate on any public road — paved or not,” Duran said.
N.M. Game and Fish does have regulations that makes an exemption for people using OHVs to travel short distances on public roads to get from one off road riding area to another, or people irrigating and farming on separated properties.
“I would like to think any law enforcement officer would use common sense when they see that kind of use,” Rowland said. “They can cite the driver and when it goes to court, the judge makes the determination. The majority of the use we’re seeing is recreational. It isn’t people doing work between fields.”
The sheriff’s office will also be conducting a DWI checkpoint from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., starting on Saturday, July 2, in the city of Rio Communities and Belen area.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.