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Drought watch: metering groundwater on the Lower Rio Grande

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More than once on my reporting trips to the Lower Rio Grande in the last two weeks, farmers made a point of showing me the meters on their groundwater pump systems.

As political and policy question go in this year of drought, few issues are more contentious than pumping on the farms of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which stretches from the Hatch Valley to the Texas border. For farmers with little Rio Grande water to work with, pumping is a lifeline. But the lawsuit filed by Texas in January (see my stories here and here), which our neighbors to the south complain about that pumping, has lots of people nervous.

All those meters on all those pumps are a state requirement, so New Mexico’s Office of State Engineer can track supplemental groundwater well pumping. That has raised a fear on the part of some farmers down south that the State Engineer, the state’s top water official, may step in to try to deal with the water problems by curtailing said pumping – which farmers say would be devastating.

But in a phone interview this week, State Engineer Scott Verhines tried to calm farmers’ fears, telling me he recognizes how important those pumps are to the valley’s economy. “About all they’ve got these days is groundwater,” Verhines said. Verhines said he has no intention of curtailing pumping. “I don’t think we’re going to do anything rash like that,” he said. “That would be a huge mistake for everybody.”

Look for more in Sunday’s paper on the problems lower Rio Grande farmers are facing in this year of drought.


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