In the hot, arid stretches near the Texas-New Mexico state line little has changed in the last hundred years.
Improved highways, of course, mostly carry passing motorists and truckloads of supplies to destinations farther east or west. But in terms of residents and industry, farming has ruled the day for many years, mostly family farms that depend on diminishing amounts of Rio Grande River water transported through irrigation canals, delivering small amounts of life-giving moisture to cotton plants and pecan trees in what has long been termed the Valley of the Sun.
But times are changing, and change is different, depending on which side of the state line you live.
The El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 is run by general manager Jesus “Chuy” Reyes. The district runs along the Rio Grande from the New Mexico state line through El Paso, past the farming communities of Socorro, San Elizario, Fabens, Clint and down as far as the Hudspeth County line.
When established some 98 years ago, it included just over 100 square miles of irrigated farmland. Reyes says, unlike most western cities, it wasn't the railroad that led to El Paso's success, it was mostly cotton farming. But farming attracts people who build cities, and through the years El Paso has spread northward up the river corridor and across the Valley.
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Where once vast and verdant cotton acres stretched out of sight, real estate developments and shopping malls now figure prominently. Even in areas where farmers still plow the sandy soil, real estate prices are spiraling up as El Paso continues to sprawl.
According to a report in an El Paso newspaper, El Paso Inc., 120 acres of prime Upper Valley farmland sold recently for $50,000 an acre. The property currently supports a blooming cotton crop, but in spite of three years of declining irrigation water, developers are anxious to get their hands on whatever farmland they can find to extend the reach of the growing city.
Once known as the Middle Valley, one area of small but profitable farms has already fallen to urban development and today the residential and business areas labeled Lakeside, Cedar Grove, Riverside and Ysleta, are well established along Texas Highway 20 where farmers used to plow their ground and bale their cotton.
One farmer in the area recently complained that at $50,000 an acre, property in these traditional farming areas will not sell to other farmers, only to real estate developers. He cites a fight three years ago between farmers and a developer intent on constructing a new development, Rio Valley, a dense, city-style subdivision planned for the Upper Valley. In spite of assurances from city leaders that the development would not be approved by city planners, the El Paso city council approved the measure by a 6-1 vote.
In contrast to the sprawling problems experienced on the Texas side of the line, however, Elephant Butte Irrigation District General Manager Gary Esslinger, who oversees about 90,000 acres of New Mexico farmland adjacent to the Rio Grande and near the City of Las Cruces, says farming remains a priority in his area in spite of multiple years of serious drought.
The Elephant Butte district follows the Rio Grande from Caballo Lake below the larger Elephant Butte Reservoir through a wide basin for more than 80 miles to the Texas and New Mexico state line. Esslinger admits farmland acres have declined north of Las Cruces, but he attributes the problem to lack of irrigation water, not residential development or urban encroachment.
He says subdivision regulations in Doña Ana County limit real estate development in traditional farming areas and while farms do go on the market from time to time, they are generally purchased by other farmers to expand their agricultural operations.
Reyes doesn't think El Paso County residents are opposed to farming operations. Most suburbanites seeking to relocate out of more urban areas enjoy clear views of the mountains and greenways that offer the opportunity to connect with the pristine nature of the Upper Valley.
He says it is a "simple matter of more people and faster growth" in the city that is eating up farmland and driving up real estate prices. He warns that the problem will get worse. While there has been at least one instance where a large farming operation has purchased smaller farms and intends on continuing to use the land to produce farm products, most land is being purchased by developers willing to pay heftier prices.
It doesn't take long before land prices rise far above what is profitable for most farmers to pay, so the land is too often converted to non-farming purposes.
Reyes also warns that while it is apparent the El Paso irrigation district may be losing some of its original farm land, many smaller farms are not counted properly and farm acres are currently out of use because of a lack of irrigation water; once the allotments grow acres now sitting idle will return to productive farmland.
He fears urbanization may never stop, but warns that larger cities create a greater need for food and other agricultural products, and that, he says, is an inescapable truth.