High Plains Aquifer does not hold never-ending water supply

November 27, 2010 • Local News

Snowmelt and a small amount of rain, the Sacramento Mountains and beneficial underground strata combine to give the Pecos Valley a naturally replenishing water source and, thus, some aquatic autonomy. Still, as introduced in this series’ previous articles, the region has faced its share of water nightmares.

Clovis and eastern New Mexico also have access to an underground water source. Theirs, however, is much more expansive than the Pecos Valley’s Roswell Artesian Basin. Eastern New Mexico farmers and developers who, in the 1940s, watered crops with the aquifer’s bounty must have considered the source’s vastness a blessing. Now, that perspective has likely changed.

The High Plains Aquifer (elsewhere called the Ogallala Aquifer) extends under eight dif ferent states — from South Dakota and Wyoming south to Texas and New Mexico — and waters one-fifth of America’s annual agricultural output. Over the past century, eastern New Mexico communities have used the aquifer to support ranching and fields of corn, milo and wheat.

However, due to the region’s precarious location snug on the aquifer’s western limit, as early as 2020, the waters in the saucer – shaped underground formation will have fallen out of reach of Clovis, Portales and their neighbors. Because of rampant overuse, the aquifer’s water levels are dropping precipitously.

Eastern New Mexico, along with parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, is one of the earlier areas to be affected. Prior to its development in the 1940s, scientists believe the 300 feet of the aquifer tucked under Clovis were replete with water. Now, after decades of [auth] development, essentially adding more and more wells that serve as more ef ficient, harder-sucking straws on the massive basin, the water level in the region has plummeted to between 20 and 100 feet.

Kevin Dennehy, the ground water resources coordinator for the United States Geological Survey, said in a telephone interview, “Current usage is not sustainable. The communities on the aquifer’s edges are the first impacted by the decline.” Of the eight states under which the aquifer stretches, Nebraska, he says, has the thickest deposits left.

With demands throughout the aquifer only increasing, the water continues sloping down, requiring eastern New Mexico to build more and better wells until even that will be of no use. New Mexico American Water services Clovis. It supplies approximately 2.1 billion gallons of water users per year to the community, according to Evan Jacobs, the company’s external affairs manager.

To provide that much water, in 2000, it had 29 wells plunging into the aquifer. In 2010, 64 wells were needed to provide the same amount. On its website and in customer pamphlets, the company encourages water conservation to slow the effects of the water table that is falling by 2.5 to three feet per year. New Mexico American Water’s estimate for the rate the water is falling is corroborated by Scott Verhines, the OCCAM Consulting Engineers program manager in charge of a current project to pipe Ute Reservoir water into eastern New Mexico. Do the math: Twenty feet of water dropping at three feet per year yields … ? Impending doom?

In the mid- to late-1960s, Darrel Bostwick, representing Melrose, was on a panel with officials from other eastern New Mexico communities to study the possibility of a pipeline to augment the region’s water needs. Of his time on that panel, Bostwick, currently the chairman of the Ute Reservoir Water commission, says, “People then didn’t ever think we’d pump all of the water out of [the aquifer].” Perhaps that explains why, when the price tag — $52 million — was set, the project, which would have delivered water all the way to Lea County, stalled.

In 1999, with the aquifer falling out of sight, the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority was born “to provide potable water to eight city and county member agencies for municipal, commercial and industrial use as a means for the communities to collectively address the issue.” After 12 years of planning, the first phase of the project will begin in May 2011. In its entirety, the project promises to pump, treat and deliver 24,000 acre-feet from the Ute Reservoir to the communities of Clovis, Elida, Grady, Melrose, Portales and Texico and to Curry and Roosevelt counties.

The $500 million project — right, 10 times the 1960’s price — will consist of intake and diversion structures, multiple pumping stations, storage tanks to hold 10 million gallons of water, 150 miles of pipeline and a 28 million gallon-a-day water treatment plant. OCCAM expects to complete everything in 2021.

“Without our work,” Verhines says, “these communities are going away.” Though Verhines admits the process wasn’t easy, especially not at first, in the end, ENMWUA was able to bring in diverse stakeholders to resolve a very complex issue.

The 16,450 acre-feet per year that will be delivered to the eastern New Mexico communities is 5,450 more acre-feet than the communities’ current usage. Based on water conservation projections, population and water use trends and the “sustainable and renewable”

Ute Reservoir water supply, OCCAM predicts that, that quantity of water should suffice past the year 2060. In email correspondence, Verhines wrote, “Much of New Mexico, where rural regional water collaboration might make sense” is following ENMWUA’s project “to take advantages of our lessons learned.” “In my opinion,” Verhines added, “there is much to be gained in the state through similar collaboration.” Bostwick singles out Clovis residents’ willingness to pay a little extra for their water to “level the playing field on the water costs” across all of the communities.

Had they not, he thinks the “little communities could have fallen by the wayside.” In sum, the 50-year veteran of eastern New Mexico water calls the project “a very good model for other communities in the state of New Mexico and other states.”

Lessons from the Ute Reservoir pipeline project can certainly be applied elsewhere, though the project’s timing probably shouldn’t be. Asked about the falling water levels and the project’s anticipated termination in 2021, Craig Roepke, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission’s Canadian River basin manager, said, “Ten years isn’t going to be any too soon.”

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