Pecos River Settlement wallops Hagerman economy

November 26, 2010 • Local News

Gov. Bill Richardson compared it to a cloud being removed from the Pecos Valley’s future. “A significant milestone” is how New Mexico State Engineer John D’Antonio described it. “An extraordinary example of what’s possible” are the words of Greg Lewis, the Office of the State Engineer’s current Pecos River basin manager. “It” doesn’t receive the same reviews in Hagerman.

Cliff Waide, who has been mayor of Hagerman since 2005, says, “It has had a devastating effect on Hagerman, Lake Arthur [auth] and Dexter.” Dan Lethrop, president of the board of directors of the Hagerman Irrigation Company, echoes Waide’s sentiment, “As a community, it was devastating.”

What could earn broad acclaim from state officials outside of the community and qualified disdain from stakeholders within it? The 2003 Pecos River Settlement.

According to Lewis, the settlement aspired to bring the Roswell Artesian Basin back into balance and ensure that water is delivered to those it is due. The Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District, Carlsbad Irrigation District, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and State of New Mexico created the document and have worked to implement it since. Its inspiration? Decades of legal turmoil surrounding New Mexico’s under – delivery of water to Texas, Carlsbad’s contentions with water usage in PVACD farther upstream on the Pecos River and the dropping water levels in the Roswell Artesian Basin.

As Richardson’s, D’Antonio’s and Lewis’ comments suggest, in many ways the settlement has been a success. New Mexico has turned a deficit into a 100,100 acre-feet water surplus to Texas. Carlsbad, where water right holders take seniority over those in Roswell, is again getting its water. And the basin’s water levels, which were recently falling, are at least stable, at best climbing. For its piece of the settlement puzzle, PVACD committed to retire 7,500 acres of water rights in its district — CID committed to 4,500 acres.

New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission, the state’s agent for the water right transactions, purchased a large percentage of those water rights in and around one small agricultural community 24 miles south of Roswell. With more than 100,000 acres of farmland in production throughout PVACD territory, the voluntary transactions were concentrated in Hagerman, Dexter and Lake Arthur.

There, since 2003, 4,400 acres of water rights have been retired, almost 60 percent of PVACD’s entire commitment, continuing a trend of water right leases and retirements in the area back that date back to the early 1990s. “Fundamentally, in this valley, water is life,” says Lethrop. Without that lifeblood, the result — a less vibrant community — is not surprising. Farmers without water can’t farm. They can’t hire employees. They can’t purchase seed, tractors, etc. from local businesses.

While the number of dollars in economic output lost with the water rights proved evasive, Dr. Michael Patrick, a New Mexico State University extension economist, offers 1.5 as a realistic multiplier for agricultural operations in Hagerman’s economy, meaning every dollar lost would result in an additional loss of $1.50. For the voluntary water right retirement, ISC paid Hagerman, Dexter and Lake Arthur water right holders more than $20 million.

However, as far as Waide and Lethrop can tell, the one-time payments have long since disappeared into retirement accounts, relocations and Winnebagos; the money hasn’t made a detectable imprint on the community.

On an autumn afternoon, standing across from the modest Hagerman town hall on West Argyle Street, fewer than a handful of people and cars are on the move. Waide and Cassius Mason, the director of the community’s department of public safety, quickly rattle off a list of closures they relate to the retired water rights — two grocery stores, two gas stations, the lumberyard, two barbershops, two bars, three cafés, a vehicle dealership, an insurance agent … Frustrated as they are, neither has given up hope. For his part, Waide tries not to blame the settlement that tipped the dominoes falling down on Hagerman.

“This was probably the smallest economic loss for the valley,” he says. “The alternative could have been worse.” Aron Balok, PVACD’s water resource specialist, is adamant that the state and nation must hold onto the dwindling farmland acreage it has in production.

Still, he says, “This was a necessary, if unsavory, option. Hopefully we put ourselves in a place where we won’t have to do it again.” Waide sounds a hopeful note about the prospects that Hagerman will develop economic alternatives to the alfalfa and corn silage that used to power Hagerman’s economy, and still do to a lesser extent. He’s proud of the thriving agricultural operations that still give Hagerman a pulse.

He’s proud of the town’s industrial park (the business lots come with water rights). And he’s proud of the fact that Fat- Man’s Beef Jerky’s new processing plant is under construction in the park. Inevitably, though, conversation comes back to the hardships Hagerman has had to face. With some sadness in his voice, he speaks of the urbanization and “natural small-town decline” happening across the country and adds, “and that’s literally dry up in our case.”

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