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Lake Arthur Symbolizes N.M. Water Past, Present

ESTANCIA — The little town of Estancia’s stubborn allegiance to Lake Arthur says a lot about our relationship with water in arid New Mexico.

Four hundred feet at its longest and less than 50 feet at its widest, Lake Arthur would in most places count as a pond. But surrounded with the most beautiful shade trees you’ll find anywhere in this near-desert, and stocked with catfish and trout, in Estancia it counts as “the heart of the town,” Municipal Administrator Julie Carter said as she showed me pictures of Lake Arthur a century ago.

Fed by a natural spring, it was a gathering place even then. The lake and the spring that fed it are the reason Estancia grew up on this spot in the arid basin. But it has taken some persistence to keep it that way.

The natural flow in the spring feeding Lake Arthur stopped long ago, said 51-year-old Daniel Chavez, Estancia public works director and proud native son.

By the fire station, up a low hill from Lake Arthur, Chavez pointed to the big metal lid over the first well, drilled 170 feet down to pump water up to the spring once it stopped flowing on its own.

When that well failed, they drilled another back in 2004. Just to be safe, they ran it down 400 feet into the groundwater that is the lifeblood of the Estancia Basin. And where the spring once flowed on its own, they now pump 50 gallons a minute, up to a fountain, then down through a little artificial stream to lovely Lake Arthur.

Where the stream enters the lake, Chavez and his colleagues built a lovely little bridge, already a popular spot for weddings.

The tale of Lake Arthur is a story you hear a lot out in the Estancia Basin — where springs once flowed, now we pump. And in most places, the water table keeps dropping.

“We’re pumping it out faster than it goes back in,” acknowledged basin farmer Ryan Schwebach.

In 1909, pioneering hydrologist Oscar Meinzer visited the valley, which runs down the east side of the Sandia and Manzano Mountains a 45-minute drive east of Albuquerque.

“Insufficient rainfall during recent years has caused crop failures and has created an urgent demand for an investigation of the feasibility of irrigating with groundwater,” Meinzer wrote in the 33-page U.S. Geological Survey “Preliminary Report on the Ground Waters of Estancia Valley in New Mexico.”

In Meinzer’s time, windmills fed gardens and small plots. Meinzer knew there was more groundwater to be pulled up — but not much. “However economically such water may be applied,” Meinzer wrote, “it is not sufficient in amount to irrigate more than a small part of the total acreage of arable land.”

History has born Meinzer out. In recent decades, something like 2 percent of the basin’s land has been irrigated.

Schwebach is something of an expert in what Meinzer was talking about, especially the “economically” part. As the water table drops, he’s learned to coax the most from the pumps that feed his big center-pivot irrigators. While Lake Arthur may be Estancia’s most visible water, more than 90 percent of the water pumped in the basin goes to agriculture. And farmers are very sensitive to the cost of their water.

Pumping takes energy, and energy costs money. “We’re running very thin profit margins,” said Schwebach, who has about 2,500 acres in production, mostly corn and alfalfa.

Schwebach sits on the Estancia Basin Water Planning Committee, which is trying to figure out how to coax the most out of the dwindling aquifer.

Despite the continuing decline in the aquifer that feeds Lake Arthur and his crops, Schwebach thinks he will be able to keep farming for a long time. “I’ve seen huge strides in irrigation efficiency and crop hybrids,” he said.

Schwebach and his colleagues in the Estancia Basin’s water planning effort deserve enormous credit for their efforts to grapple with the area’s declining water table. Their 222-page 2010 regional water plan update is a serious document that acknowledges their problems.

The area’s population keeps growing as Albuquerque’s population spills out along the Interstate 40 corridor, and agricultural pumping continues, with more efficient irrigation techniques not necessarily translating to reduced water use.

“Increased efficiency,” the report notes, “is not the same as a decrease in pumping (just more efficient use of the same amount of water).”

In other words, it acknowledges what some other regions of the state have been less willing to admit — that we are using our water faster than nature replenishes the supply.

For now, the water table beneath Lake Arthur sits at 65 feet down, well short of the 400-foot well Chavez and his colleagues drilled. But they know that won’t last, and drilling deep was a recognition that the town plans to be here for the long run. “We were just preparing for the future,” Chavez said. “The water’s going to go down.”

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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