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Water battle persists in southern New Mexico

CARLSBAD — The leaders of the Carlsbad Irrigation District voted Tuesday to demand the state of New Mexico shut off groundwater users upstream in the Roswell and Artesia areas to protect Carlsbad-area farmers’ right to Pecos River water.

At its worst, the “priority call” could force many groundwater users — municipalities, farms, dairies and oil rigs — to stop pumping water, at a potential cost of $1 billion to the local economy.

With the third year of deep drought hovering over New Mexico, the unanimous vote by the irrigation district’s five-member board marks the most serious confrontation this year between New Mexico water users scrapping over increasingly scarce supply.

It is the latest volley in a longstanding water conflict between farmers in the Carlsbad area, who largely depend on water from the Pecos River, and farmers to their north in Roswell and Artesia, who use groundwater.

The downstream farmers have long complained that the Roswell-Artesia pumping is slowly draining away water that would otherwise flow in the Pecos to their farms.

Carlsbad-area farmer Oscar Vasquez, a member of the board, said last year was the first time in 37 years of farming that he failed to produce a single bale of cotton on his 400 acres.

“If it doesn’t rain, we’re not going to get any water,” Vasquez said during the meeting Tuesday afternoon at the irrigation district’s office amid farm fields southeast of Carlsbad.

Meanwhile upstream, pumps in the Roswell-Artesia part of the Pecos Valley were running full blast this week, creating a contrast between water haves and have-nots.

Aron Balok, director of the upstream water district that would be hit by a priority call, said any move to shut down groundwater pumping would be “cataclysmic” to the region’s economy.

Balok’s district, the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District, oversees groundwater pumping that supplies more than 100,000 acres of farmland, supplying a growing dairy industry along with alfalfa, wheat, corn and pecan farming.

The groundwater pumpers also supply water to the booming oil and gas industry and municipalities in the area. Balok put a rough estimate on the economic impact of a full pumping shutdown at $1 billion.

State officials have argued that any such effort to curtail pumping would amount to a “futile call.” It takes years for the effects of curtailed groundwater pumping to show up in the river, according to Greg Lewis, Pecos Basin manager for the Interstate Stream Commission. That would mean that a call this year would not likely yield additional water for the Carlsbad farmers in 2013, according to Lewis.

Members of the Carlsbad district, who farm alfalfa, chile, cotton and pecans, among other things, are aware of that delay and say the priority call would send a message.

What happens next is unclear. State officials have been working, so far unsuccessfully, to forge a compromise.

“We will move forward and sort through the complexity of the technical, administrative, legal and hydrological issues,” state water engineer Scott Verhines said in a statement issued late Tuesday afternoon.

“It appears that the Carlsbad Irrigation District felt (it) had no other option but to take this step today.”

Under New Mexico water law, the Roswell-Artesia water users have lower priority rights, because they began using water decades after the Carlsbad farmers began irrigating their fields.

The Carlsbad farmers’ complaint is that the state has long allowed pumping upstream by those lower priority users, a problem coming home to roost during this year’s extreme drought.

The next move is up to the Office of State Engineer, but any action would likely be immediately tied up in litigation, said Estevan López, head of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.

“My anticipation is that, before anything gets shut down, there’s going to be a lot more litigation,” said López, who attended the Carlsbad board’s meeting.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal