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Could N.M. Default on Water Debt?

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Lee Brown, the dean of New Mexico water economists, argued a couple of years ago that New Mexico could face a $2.4 billion problem on the Rio Grande.

Don’t get hung up on the specific number. What’s more important is the scale of the problem if New Mexico overuses the Rio Grande, can’t meet its legal obligation to send water downstream to Texas, and Texas sues.

Whether Brown’s calculation of how much it would cost to fix such a problem is high or low doesn’t matter. At this point, no one can know with any certainty. What’s important is that the numbers, however you look at the problem, are sufficiently large that some measure of caution seems in order.

It’s a scenario that has been lingering in the background in this year of extreme drought, as suffering farmers in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District in southern New Mexico looked to the north for some bailout water and ran into stiff opposition from New Mexico State Engineer John D’Antonio.

Here’s how Brown, a University of New Mexico professor emeritus, came to his conclusion.

Over on the Pecos, which flows out of the southern Sangre de Cristos and provides water for farming communities on New Mexico’s eastern plains, Texas sued New Mexico in 1974 for using more than we were entitled to from a river we were supposed to be sharing.

There is something pathetic about the response – pumping groundwater to fill an empty river, as the state of New Mexico is now doing on the Pecos.

Practical, perhaps, and arguably a legal necessity in the strange world of New Mexico water law. But pathetic nonetheless.

Upstream from Carlsbad, a pair of well fields are cranked up right now in response to the driest year on record on the Pecos.

The pumps are sucking 21,000 gallons per minute out of the ground and pushing it toward the river and Brantley Reservoir. It is part of the $100 million-plus solution to an interstate battle triggered in 1974 when Texas sued us.

The $100 million deal approved in 2003 called for the state to buy up 12,000 acres’ worth of agricultural water rights to reduce New Mexico’s consumption on the Pecos. The deal also required the state to install groundwater pumps, to put water back in the river during dry times.

This is the precedent at the root of Brown’s calculation. There is evidence of a long-term deficit on the middle Rio Grande, with all the region’s farms, cities and ecosystems using more water each year than nature provides. We’ve been papering that problem over by pumping groundwater. If that eventually failed and the state were to adopt the same approach we used on the Pecos, buying up water rights to make up for the shortfall, it could be a multibillion-dollar problem, Brown told a state legislative committee last summer.

That billion-dollar version of the problem is likely a long way off. But it has loomed in the background of a north-south water fight this year over the shrinking pool of water in Elephant Butte Reservoir.

Elephant Butte, near Truth or Consequences and upstream from Texas, serves as a sort of bank account for our water transactions with Texas. We started the year with 165,000 acre-feet of extra water in the bank, called “credit water” under the Rio Grande Compact, the interstate deal that determines how we are supposed to share the river with Texas. The credit water comes from delivering more than we’re legally required to for use in Texas and is above and beyond the rest of the water sitting in Elephant Butte.

By the end of June, according to preliminary accounting by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, drought had eaten away half of that cushion. But things could have been worse.

In March, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, nearly skunked by drought, asked the state to save the irrigation season by handing over 100,000 acre-feet of credit water in a move called a “relinquishment.”

Under a relinquishment, New Mexico simply hands over the water for use downstream by farmers in southern New Mexico and Texas. That’s fine when the credit account is big (we’ve done it twice before in recent years), but as this year’s accounts dwindled, State Engineer John D’Antonio said “no.”

The shortage being suffered by Elephant Butte Irrigation District farmers this year was in significant part a problem of their own making, the result of a 2008 deal with Texas farmers over how to share supplies on the lower Rio Grande, D’Antonio wrote in a May 16 letter. Under the deal, most of what nature provided in this water-short year ended up in Texas, leaving Elephant Butte Irrigation District farmers dry.

Solving that problem by depleting some of our savings bank of Elephant Butte “credit water” to bail out the farmers could have created longer-term problems on the river, D’Antonio wrote in his letter explaining his decision not to relinquish water.

It’s clear now that if D’Antonio had granted the irrigation district’s request, we could very well have ended our 2011 water year in the red. In the end, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District agreed, acknowledging in a July 8 letter to D’Antonio that giving it the water “would likely” have put New Mexico in a deficit situation on the Rio Grande, its bank account of credit water depleted.

It would take more than a single year in the red to trigger a Pecos-style lawsuit on the Rio Grande. But if Brown’s analysis is correct, the long-term risk should not be taken lightly.

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