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Agricultural forbearance and the cheating problem

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — My story in Sunday’s newspaper about “forbearance” – paying farmers to fallow their fields, leaving water for environmental flows – touched on one of key problems in making such an effort work in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District – the lack of metering:

As a first step, Udall’s legislation calls for a water metering program for conservancy district farmers. Currently, individual farmers’ water use is not measured….

Behind the scenes, the conservancy district’s staff has expressed reservations. A memo sent to Udall’s office by district chief executive Subhas Shah said restrictions under state law might make it difficult to use the district’s water for other than agricultural use.

The memo also questioned the idea of measuring the amount of water the district’s farmers use. “The MRGCD irrigators and the Board that represents them has not determined whether metering would be a top priority for expenditures by the MRGCD, or whether the money could be better spent elsewhere,” the memo says.

Without metering to determine how much water a farmer uses ordinarily, and how much they forbear in a fallowing year, it’s hard to make such a program work. An analysis done for the conservancy district eight years ago by consultants Ramchand Oad and Phil King (pdf) was blunt about the risks:

Forbearance of canal water is especially complicated, compared to groundwater, since it can provide savings when a group of water users collectively forbear so that their lateral canal can be effectively closed and the associated losses reduced. As such, surface canal water forbearance programs will have elements of “management” as compared to complete voluntary programs. Ensuring or verifying that irrigators who agree to forbear actually do so is beyond the existing capabilities of the MRGCD and any other agency in the area. Irrigators may accept compensation for forbearance and continue to irrigate either from surface water or groundwater, and either will severely reduce the amount of water actually made available for upstream storage by forbearance.


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