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NM will pay farmers to stop groundwater use

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Nearly 20 farms in southern New Mexico are one step closer to receiving state grants to stop using groundwater for a year as part of a water management pilot project for the Lower Rio Grande.

An irrigation ditch is filled with water for alfalfa fields in the Mesilla Valley just west of Las Cruces. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Grants considered by the Interstate Stream Commission last week ranged from $9,000 to $90,000, and totaled more than $500,000.

The Office of the State Engineer has certified that the farms, trusts and corporations have valid water rights. The staff will now verify land deeds before signing the grant agreements, which represent about 1,600 acres.

John Longworth, an engineer with the Interstate Stream Commission, said the state team will work with southern New Mexico water managers to model what a reduction in groundwater pumping does to local water levels.

“We want to better understand how the aquifer system is going to react to different kinds of groundwater conservation scenarios,” Longworth said.

A pecan orchard is irrigated in the Mesilla Valley in the spring. New Mexico has started a pilot program that pays farmers in the southern part of the state not to pump groundwater for their properties for a year. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The state Legislature allocated $7 million this year for a three-year Lower Rio Grande water management project. The original amount was $17 million, but that was slashed during special session budget cuts.

The program aims to find water management tools that work in the Rio Grande valley from Elephant Butte Dam to the Texas state line.

Monitoring wells in the Rincon and Mesilla valleys will measure the program’s effect on regional aquifer depletions. Most of those wells are managed by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

Longworth said the team may use the well data to decide whether future grants should focus more on areas where the aquifer is severely depleted, or regions where less pumping would directly benefit Rio Grande flows.

Pecan farmer John Clayshulte walks across an irrigation ditch that waters alfalfa fields in the Mesilla Valley just west of Las Cruces. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Besides paying farmers to fallow their land, the pilot program may also pursue aquifer recharge projects. Improving water infrastructure and augmenting groundwater supply with brackish water are other possible strategies.

Commissioner Paula Garcia said she is curious about the pilot program’s implications for the future of New Mexico water policy.

“In some areas of the state, curtailment and shortage sharing are very routine,” Garcia said. “I’m wondering if that could be part of these scenarios, or if the major tool is to pay people not to pump as a future strategy.”

Farms had to be at least 10 acres of regularly irrigated land with valid groundwater rights to qualify for the pilot program grants.

An onion field is pictured in May this year near Arrey in Sierra County. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The Office of the State Engineer will use site visits, photos and meter readings to ensure grantees are not irrigating the land during the 12-month period.

Applicants could request grant payments ranging from $400 an acre to $800 an acre.

Longworth said that in this first round of funding, the farms that requested less money per acre to not water their land are mainly pastures.

The most expensive requests came from farms that plant multiple crops and use far more groundwater.

“To get the higher consumptive use farms (to participate), it’s likely going to take more money in terms of dollars per acre,” Longworth said.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.


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