Beyond the river that winds to the east, Roswell has the faÃ§ade of a stereotypical desert. But donâ€™t be deceived by the dry dearth and parched flora. A visit to its subterranean shows a wetter world.
The Pecos River, with headwaters in northern New Mexico and an end at the riverâ€™s confluence with the Rio Grande in Texas, is the valleyâ€™s most obvious water source.
In terms of Pecos Valley usage and overall flow, the river is dwar fed by its underground counterpart. Sliding below the earthâ€™s surface east of the slit in the Sacramento Mountains that serves as its intake, the basin sprawls east until it dead-ends at the Pecos River. From north to south, it spreads from Vaughn to Seven Rivers.
The snowmelt and rainwater that slip off the mountainous slopes into the basin, or aquifer, naturally replenish the system. As those familiar with the lay of the southeastern New Mexico land well know, Roswell is several thousand feet lower than the mountains 80 miles to the west.
The result is, like the oldtime photographs of oil gushing forth, fountain-ing really, out of the earth, a highly pressurized aquifer (i.e. an artesian aquifer) that, if not overly depleted, saves basin farmers the expense and hassle of pumping their life-blood. Looming over the basin, a shallower, non-artesian water source connected to the Pecos River adds to the valleyâ€™s surprisingly vast water supply. But, as humans tend to do, after the artesian water was discovered (reportedly by Roswellâ€™s Nathan Jaffa) in the summer of 1890, residents pushed the resource to its limit.
By 1915, 1,242 wells plunged into the aquifer. Forty years later, 158,000 acres of farmland, an alltime high, were under water from the basin. In a classic case of the â€œtragedy of the commonsâ€ (recall from high school economics the communal grazing land destroyed by over-grazing), basin farmers were not just using more water than the aquifer could replenish, but, by puncturing it with so many wells, they were also de-pressurizing the system.
Farmers increasingly needed pumps to irrigate. Cognizant of the importance of finite water sources in the area, the District Court of Chaves County established the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District in 1932 â€œto conserve the waters of the Roswell-Artesian Basin, including the lands within the Basin located in both Chaves and Eddy Counties.â€ The year prior, New Mexico applied surface water law to ground water, bucking the trend of allowing land owners indefinite rights to the land under them. Despite the progressive water law, PVACDâ€™s oversight and the signing of the Pecos River Compact, in which New Mexico committed to deliver a set amount of water to Texas, basin water levels dropped and New Mexico found itself in a hole â€” literally a water deficit to Texas.
Shortly thereafter, with Texas pursuing litigation against New Mexico, the Carlsbad Irrigation District, whose wells outdate Roswellâ€™s and, thus, have seniority over them, called for the state to shut down junior water right owners upstream on the river and throughout the valley to the north.
Meanwhile, PVACD was working to conserve. PVACD, which spans, roughly, the east-west coordinates of the valley and from 20 miles north of Roswell to just north of Carlsbad, retired 7,000 acres of water rights between 1963 and 1986. (One acre-foot of water is about 325,000 gallons. PVACD farmers are granted 3.5 acre-feet per acre.) However helpful, the organizationâ€™s efforts were in vain.
The districtâ€™s and stateâ€™s legal troubles culminated with the U.S. Supreme Court deciding in favor of Texas: Never again would New Mexico be able to under deliver on its water commitment to Texas. And a federal river master was put into place to oversee the compact, the only water compact of the stateâ€™s eight that has necessitated federal oversight â€” necessary â€œbecause the river has been so contentious,â€ says Greg Lewis, the Of fice of the State Engineerâ€™s Pecos River basin manager.
Throughout the 1990s, the state financed stopgap leasing and small-scale water right purchasing. But it wasnâ€™t until New Mexico came, in the words of Lewis, â€œperilously closeâ€ to going into deficit to Texas again in 2001 that CID and PVACD at last put their differences aside.
Bill Ahrens, a former board member, president and manager of CID and a member of the ad hoc committee that eventually produced the Pecos River Settlement in 2003, says of the near calamity in 2001, â€œIt made everyone realize that if we didnâ€™t work together weâ€™re going to go down together.â€
The settlement, which mandated that 4,500 water right acres in CID and 7,500 water right acres in PVACD be retired, was intended to enable the state to meet its commitment to Texas for the long term, while ensuring the sustainability of CIDâ€™s and PVACDâ€™s water sources.
Seven years later, New Mexico has accumulated a substantial surplus on water deliveries to Texas â€” to the tune of 100,100 acre-feet. And, thanks to $50 million from thenreplete coffers, the state has purchased sufficient water rights to meet CIDâ€™s and PVACDâ€™s retirement commitments. Lewis says, â€œIt appears to be working,â€ and called the settlement â€œan extraordinary example of whatâ€™s possible.â€ Not everyone marvels at it with such admiration. In Hagerman, tan soils sit untilled and wild grasses run rampant in the empty acres that once produced alfalfa and corn silage.
Over the past 25 years, Mayor Cliff Waide, who has occupied the office in Hagerman since 2005, estimates that 10,000 acres of farmland have been retired in Hagerman, Dexter and Lake Arthur, many through the Pecos River Settlement. The proactive mayor doesnâ€™t make excuses, but he does know how to describe the effect of the disproportionate burden placed on the communities dotting that stretch of Highway 2 â€” â€œdevastating.â€