Water issues across the dry Southwest are nothing new, but farmers around Carlsbad, in southeastern New Mexico, say they are fed up over water shortages in the Pecos River, blaming upriver Roswell water users for tapping groundwater sources and depleting water that would have flowed south in the now near-dry Pecos riverbed.
They are so upset that they are calling for a rarely used “priority call” on the Pecos, a request that in effect asks state lawmakers to reinstate a rule that pits Roswell users against Carlsbad farmers, a water war of sorts between neighbors.
Three years of extreme drought has Southwestern water users in a frenzy, especially farmers who depend on irrigation to keep their farms running. For many years now groundwater use in and around Roswell and pumping surface water from the Pecos for irrigation around Carlsbad has been the status quo. But extreme drought conditions are changing what once was a “working arrangement.”
Ronnie Walterscheid, a Carlsbad farmer and rancher, says Carlsbad agricultural producers are fed up and are calling on elected representatives to take action. He addressed a group of fellow farmers and ranchers recently after Carlsbad irrigation officials put ag producers on notice that they would get only about one-tenth of their normal water allocation this year because of surface water shortages in the Carlsbad area.
Saying it is time to fight back, Walterscheid and fellow farmers and ranchers want to return to the days when water in New Mexico was allocated first and foremost to land users who historically have been using the water for the longest period of time. These priority users generally are farmers and ranchers, of course, who have a long history of agricultural production in the area.
Officials at the irrigation district say while it is true New Mexico’s state Constitution allocates water rights to “first in time, first in right,” water allocation practices have long ago diversified. They say officials with New Mexico’s state water authority will never cut water from municipal users in favor of a smaller number of agricultural users.
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Dudley Jones, manager of the district, says he sympathizes with the area’s successful alfalfa farmers because senior water rights date back more than a century. But he is certain the state will not limit groundwater pumping from artesian wells in Roswell, 75 miles to the north, in an effort to irrigate farm fields in the south.
Water in southeastern New Mexico is shared by homeowners and industry, especially oil and gas interests, and by agricultural interests, like dairy operators, farmers and ranchers.
“Water is a dilemma in New Mexico,” he said. Everybody needs it, but there isn’t enough to go around, especially not during a drought.
That dilemma actually puts the pressure not on state lawmakers but on irrigation district officials who must be willing to take the heat if they are bold enough to juggle the way water is allocated in the dusty region of the state. During a meeting last month, the water district’s officers were divided on the issue of whether to issue a priority call, the move opposed by three voting members and supported by only two. Instead, the district board issued an ultimatum to state officials, calling for $2.5 million payment from legislators designed to ease local water woes. They warned the state if financial assistance is not forthcoming, they might have no other choice but to enact the priority call, which would undoubtedly lead to “extreme litigation.”
Analysts warn such a move would only spark a war over water between neighbors with an outdated rule that would guarantee water for the minority at the expense of the majority. But Walterscheid and fellow ag producers argue that their heritage operations have been around a great deal longer than newer residents who have filtered into Roswell, and they point out that the priority call is a provision of the state Constitution, meaning “it is the law” whether lawmakers like it or not.
Water in the Pecos originates in the mountains of Northern New Mexico where springs and snow melt filter into the Rio Grande River. But in an arid region like New Mexico and West Texas, water rights have long been a source of conflict. The State of Texas won a Supreme Court ruling in the late 1980s when they charged that upriver users on the Rio Grande were siphoning off water that belonged to them. That ruling forced Roswell water authorities to put meters on wells, institute conservation programs and limit withdrawals of water, a practice that continues today. They argue those safeguards ensure Carlsbad water users that they are not taking any more water from the Pecos than is allocated by federal law.
Aron Balok, Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District manager in Roswell, says the real culprit is the drought. He says no one thought it would be so dry for so long. But he warns that if a priority call were declared, it would simply mean Roswell area dairies would close, oil and gas interests would shut down, and still, he says, there would be no more water in the Pecos than there is now, and there would be no extra water for Carlsbad farmers.
In and around Carlsbad though, the drought has taken an ugly toll. Ranchers have greatly reduced herds, hay farmers have watched fields dry up and hay production fall drastically. A few ranchers say they were forced to sell acreage just to make bank payments while suffering devastating losses in farm and ranch revenue.
About the only thing New Mexicans can agree upon in southeast regions of the state these days is that substantial rain needs to return to the region to make water problems –instead of water—disappear. And if rains don’t fall soon, they say, what has long been an agriculturally-rich region may be reduced to little more than blowing dust in the wind.