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Can Pecos water fix work for Rio Grande?

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Can New Mexico’s $100 million solution to drought problems on the Pecos River provide the model for the much larger problems on the lower Rio Grande?

That is the question posed by Senate Bill 440, introduced in the Legislature last week by Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. Cervantes’ bill asks for a $120 million appropriation to deal with the “severe imbalance (that) exists among water rights holders reliant on Rio Grande water supply.”

If Cervantes gets it (a big “if”), the money would be used to improve irrigation efficiency, possibly import water to the Rio Grande Basin, and most important, to buy up and retire water rights in the valleys of New Mexico’s southern Rio Grande, south of Elephant Butte Reservoir.

Importing water is a tricky problem, but there are two big and controversial ideas on the table right now: pumping groundwater from a private ranch on the Plains of San Augustin, near Datil, and building a pipeline to ferry some of New Mexico’s share of the Gila River to the Las Cruces area.

Both are long shots.

The real meat of the Cervantes bill is the way it tries to solve the Rio Grande’s problems in similar fashion to the approach New Mexico used when faced with similar issues on the Pecos.

On the Pecos, which runs down New Mexico’s eastern plains, Texas sued New Mexico for underdelivering water on the shared river. There, the state spent $100 million to buy up water rights, and to build a network of groundwater wells that in dry times literally pump groundwater into the river to keep it wet. By buying up water rights, the state effectively took agricultural land out of production, reducing water demand.

There are some big differences in the two river basins, most notably the size of the problem. “$120 million is not going to resolve the problems,” Cervantes said of his Rio Grande legislation in an interview last week. “It’s only the beginning.” But whether he gets what he’s asking for or not, Cervantes is trying to spark a serious discussion in New Mexico about how to deal with the increasingly obvious gap between water supply and demand on the Rio Grande.

How big is the problem?

There are a couple of ways of looking at it.

Most immediately, the farmers of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District are staring at the very real possibility of zero irrigation water from Elephant Butte Reservoir in 2013.

Those who can pump groundwater will, but it is much more expensive than surface irrigation water. In addition, years of drought-driven groundwater pumping have dropped water tables in the lower Rio Grande’s valleys, making pumping more expensive and pulling in lower-quality groundwater.

Doña Ana County has one of New Mexico’s largest agricultural economies. This will hurt.

But the bigger problem may be downstream, in Texas. Last month, Texas filed suit against New Mexico, alleging groundwater pumping in the lower Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico is depriving Texas of water in violation of the interstate Rio Grande Compact.

Cervantes is a careful attorney, deliberate when he speaks. In our interview, he was quick to point out that he believes New Mexico’s legal position is strong. But if Texas prevails? It would mean “catastrophic losses to agriculture in New Mexico,” Cervantes said.

The notion of pursuing a “Pecos solution,” reducing demand by buying up water rights, has been kicking around New Mexico water policy circles for years. Long before the current bitter three-year drought, a study for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission concluded we were consuming more water each year than nature provides, papering over the problem by pumping groundwater. A few years back, Lee Brown, a retired University of New Mexico professor and the dean of the state’s water economists, took the numbers in the ISC study and came up with a back-of-the-envelope estimate of the cost of a Pecos-style solution: $2.4 billion.

As I wrote two years ago when I first discussed Brown’s estimate in the Journal, you shouldn’t get too hung up on the specific number. Its value is rather to give us a general idea of the scale of the problem.

But this much is clear. Water shortfalls on the Rio Grande and the resulting Texas lawsuit represent a very big problem.

“The downside risk,” Cervantes told me, “is a billion-dollar judgment against the state of New Mexico.”

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.


— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal