Many water problems related to unenforced laws

November 28, 2010 • Local News

It was the birthplace [auth] of ground water hydrology, but southeastern New Mexico still over -exploited its naturally replenishing basin to the point of disaster. Even though eastern New Mexico sits atop one of the world’s largest aquifers, it is still in dire need of a new water source. Benjamin Franklin quipped, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” Mark Twain is credited for saying, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

If relatively sparsely populated eastern and southeastern New Mexico, sitting atop vast underground aquifers once thought inexhaustible, aren’t immune from Franklin’s and Twain’s epigrams, is any place? In the face of increasingly variable climactic activity, other places not so hydrologically well-endowed seem more and more likely to experience similar problems.

To save them the hassle, what lessons, if any, could they glean from the aquatic hardships eastern and southeastern New Mexicans have endured? Em Hall, a seven-year veteran of the Office of the State Engineer and now professor emeritus of law at the University of New Mexico, wrote High and Dry, a book on the legal struggles surrounding the Pecos River.

Reflecting back on the travails of the Pecos, he cites the $100 million the state has expended since the early 1990s to address its problems and says, “It shows how, unless you get your ducks in a row early, it’s going to be extremely expensive to make corrections.”

His advice for water users: “Move forward with great caution.” Asked whether the hardfought success with the Pecos River is a good example for others, he can’t get away from the finances. “It’s really hopeful,” he concedes, “but it’s extremely expensive.” Darrel Bostwick, the chairman of the Ute Reservoir Water Commission, believes eastern New Mexico’s Ute Reservoir pipeline project is a model project, too.

He emphasizes the collaboration and the selfless people of Clovis, who, by paying a little more for their water, are leveling the project’s costs, thus, in Bostwick’s opinion, making it possible for the smaller communities to participate. But, as hopeful as the state of aquatic affairs in parts of southeastern and eastern New Mexico might be, problems persist. Dan Lethrop, the president of the board of directors of the Hagerman Irrigation District, fears government’s lackadaisical regulation.

“Most of the state’s water problems are directly related to the state’s unwillingness to enforce its own laws,” he says. “We have very good laws.” Limits on new appropriations have not been well enforced, he points out, referencing the state’s quick contradiction of the commitment it made to Texas in the Pecos River Compact in 1948.

As for the state’s claims to “administer” its way out of water problems, he interprets them as “we’re going to find ways to steal [water] from the people who have it,” instead of putting a stop to new appropriations. Domestic wells — Lethrop estimates that, over the past 40 years, 10,000 new domestic wells have been dug — are another of his concerns.

While he credits the state for reducing domestic well appropriations from three acre-feet to one acre-foot, “With no meter,” he questions, “what’s the difference?” Aron Balok, the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District water resource specialist, agrees that domestic wells deserve attention. PVACD has taken the first steps toward studying the ef fect of domestic wells on the Roswell Artesian Basin.

Of more pressing concern for Balok and most others interviewed, however, is the proposed Berrendo LLC pipeline that promises to pull Pecos River water from Fort Sumner to Santa Fe. “Water is our future,” he contests. Balok fears a decision on Berrendo will hinge on “my experts versus their experts,” and that “water flows to money” will become precedent for future water transfers, overtly or otherwise.

Dudley Jones, the current manager at Carlsbad Irrigation District, thinks the young collaboration between PVACD and CID could play a vital role in the case of Berrendo and in the future.

“We all have to work together,” he says, “or someone will try to pick us all off.” He adds that inter-basin transfers “can compromise the growth potential of a region.” Furthermore, he reasons, larger communities with deeper pockets and more resources at their disposal are better equipped to handle water problems than their smaller counterparts.

On the other hand, Greg Lewis, the Of fice of the State Engineer’s Pecos River basin manager, and Hall struggle to imagine that the state would approve a project that would compromise its $100 million-plus investment in the Pecos River and the lands of PVACD and CID.

Contesting the perception that the state could whimsically approve the pipeline, Hall says, “The Berrendo pipeline has an even tougher row to hoe because of the awareness of the issues on the Pecos.”

Even tougher, it seems, will be resolving the quandary of record low water levels in Lake Mead and deliveries to the seven western states that use its and the Colorado River’s water. Tim Barnett, a marine physicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, suggests that the math isn’t so challenging.

Over the past 11 years, he says, Lake Mead and the Colorado River have been overdrafted, i.e. more water has been taken out than put in, by an average of 2 million acre-feet per year.

Only 25 million acre-feet, he adds, remain in the system. Barnett doesn’t think the government will let the lake run dry. Instead, deliveries to some states will be reduced drastically. Arizona and Nevada, he says, will be particularly hard hit.F or a solution to the problem, Barnett jests: “What are you going to do — turn Phoenix off?” As his sarcasm implies, he’s not very hopeful when it comes to rectifying the situation.

While Barnett “would hope [the Lake Mead stakeholders] could” come to some agreement about a sustainable solution, he “wouldn’t put any money on it.” And if the states, New Mexico included, that are part of the Colorado River Compact actually try to address the problem, Barnett predicts “a terrible negotiation with lawsuits for decades. It’s a very scary scenario.”

Of course, that sounds familiar in New Mexico, and this part of the state in particular. In the years after World War I, Roswell farmers battled with the Federal Land Bank of Wichita, Kan., for 16 years to secure federal farm loans.

In the process, the community began studying and regulating the Roswell Artesian Basin. Struggles with water continued through the late 1980s and up to the first years of this century, respectively, with vitriol enveloping both the Pecos River Compact and relations between PVACD and CID. For eastern and southeastern New Mexico, water feuds involving terrible negotiations, lawsuits for decades and very scary scenarios are old news.

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