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Courts establish PVACD to conserve Roswell-Artesian Basin

November 25, 2010 • Local News

Beyond the river that winds to the east, Roswell has the façade of a stereotypical desert. But don’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 river’s confluence with the Rio Grande in Texas, is the valley’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 earth’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 [auth] 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 valley’s surprisingly vast water supply. But, as humans tend to do, after the artesian water was discovered (reportedly by Roswell’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 “tragedy of the commons” (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 “to conserve the waters of the Roswell-Artesian Basin, including the lands within the Basin located in both Chaves and Eddy Counties.” 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, PVACD’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 — literally a water deficit to Texas.

Shortly thereafter, with Texas pursuing litigation against New Mexico, the Carlsbad Irrigation District, whose wells outdate Roswell’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 organization’s efforts were in vain.

The district’s and state’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 state’s eight that has necessitated federal oversight — necessary “because the river has been so contentious,” says Greg Lewis, the Of fice of the State Engineer’s Pecos River basin manager.

Throughout the 1990s, the state financed stopgap leasing and small-scale water right purchasing. But it wasn’t until New Mexico came, in the words of Lewis, “perilously close” 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, “It made everyone realize that if we didn’t work together we’re going to go down together.”

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 CID’s and PVACD’s water sources.

Seven years later, New Mexico has accumulated a substantial surplus on water deliveries to Texas — 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 CID’s and PVACD’s retirement commitments. Lewis says, “It appears to be working,” and called the settlement “an extraordinary example of what’s possible.” 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 doesn’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 — “devastating.”

jdmoore@roswell-record.com

acres of farmland, an alltime
high, were under
water from the basin.
In a classic case of the
“tragedy of the commons”
(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
“to conserve the waters of
the Roswell-Artesian Basin,
including the lands within
the Basin located in both
Chaves and Eddy Counties.”
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, PVACD’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 — literally a water
deficit to Texas.
Shortly thereafter, with
Texas pursuing litigation
against New Mexico, the
Carlsbad Irrigation District,
whose wells outdate
Roswell’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
organization’s efforts were
in vain.
The district’s and state’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 state’s eight
that has necessitated federal
oversight — necessary
“because the river has been
so contentious,” says Greg
Lewis, the Of fice of the
State Engineer’s Pecos
River basin manager.
Throughout the 1990s,
the state financed stopgap
leasing and small-scale
water right purchasing. But
it wasn’t until New Mexico
came, in the words of
Lewis, “perilously close” 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,
“It made everyone realize
that if we didn’t work
together we’re going to go
down together.”
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 CID’s and
PVACD’s water sources.
Seven years later, New
Mexico has accumulated a
substantial surplus on
water deliveries to Texas —
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 CID’s
and PVACD’s retirement
commitments.
Lewis says, “It appears to
be working,” and called the
settlement “an extraordinary
example of what’s
possible.”
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
doesn’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 — “devastating.”
jdmoore@roswell-record.com

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