New Mexico water wars part two: Stakeholders tell why water is so important to them

The Rio Grande near Isleta pueblo. Wikipedia image
The Rio Grande near Isleta pueblo. Wikipedia image
The Spanish brought acequias to New Mexico in the 1500s along with a system to apportion water to all the farmers who drew from the ditch. That system became the common law principal known as first in right to water, or the prior appropriation doctrine, which became a core criterion in New Mexico water law. It worked when there were too few people to consume all the water in a stream. But it also created, in many cases, adversarial conflicts. People to this day continue to squabble over water.

At the Water Resources Research Institute’s annual water conference in Santa Fe in November, participants listened to presentations crafted to help water users find ways to equitably and fairly apportion water.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the stories told by stakeholders during the WRRI conference. They reveal why water is so important to people — beyond the necessity of water to sustain life, which is a given — and why people truly believe “Whiskey is for drinkin’, and water is for fightin’!” as Mark Twain said.

Take, for example, Bill Netherlin, representing the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District. “I started out farming a hundred acres,” Netherlin said. “I didn’t inherit it. Over the years we built it up, and it became our retirement. It’s the legacy we’re going to pass on to our grandchildren. We worked hard to have it, and we’re going to fight for it.”

Many small farmers, including those whose families have worked the land for generations, feel that way, Netherlin indicated. Conflict with the large users was implied.

“It’s not small hundredacre or fifty-acre plots. It’s several thousand put together.” He specifically referenced the dairies in eastern New Mexico and oil and gas industry. “The oil and gas people, who make a lot of money, are not going to be enticed to let go of their water for a little bit of money.”

Netherlin believes, as New Mexico grows, all water sources will be used — non-apportioned fresh water, brackish water, and conservation measures. “Eventually,” he said, “it will have to come from ag.” That’s what he’s ready to fight about. His solution: “We need to finish adjudication, water planning, and active water resource management. We need to work with what we have.” In other words, equitable and fair distribution.

Enter Raymond Mondragón of the Eastern Plains Council of Governments. He spoke of the 75 dairies between Portales and Clovis, noting New Mexico is the nation’s seventh largest milk producer. Dairy farmers formed a co-op and negotiated with an Irish company to establish Southwest Cheese in Clovis. The company provides 300 jobs and has become the world’s largest producer of cheddar cheese.

Regarding the dairies and processing plant’s water usage, Mondragón said, “They use water, but they filter it, clean it and recycle it. They’re doing their part in protection of our water.”

Protecting water is a potent issue. How dairies reduce or prevent contamination of groundwater from leaking waste lagoons and runoff from feedlots is a concern. In WRRI’s centennial history book, One Hundred Years of Water Wars in New Mexico, essayist Karl Wood, retired director of WRRI, wrote, “[New Mexico] has approximately 172 dairies, with the largest average herd size (2088) in the nation. … Everyday an average cow produces six to seven gallons of milk and 18 gallons of manure … . New Mexico has 300,000 milk cows. That totals 5.4 million gallons of manure in the state every day. Dealing with this waste is the dairy industry’s greatest environmental challenge.”

On the other hand, the dairy industry in New Mexico is a $4 billion business that provides jobs and tax revenue, which could be endangered due to lack of water.

Oil and gas is another major industry in the state. Steve Henke is president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, representing 300 member companies that drill and produce over 95 percent of New Mexico’s oil and gas. He spoke at length about hydraulic fracturing, what he calls “a revolutionary technology vital to the industry.” The process is applied more than a mile below the surface to fracture shale and allow oil and gas to flow to the well bore, and it requires fresh water. But Henke said, the industry consumes only two-tenths of one percent of New Mexico’s water.

WRRI conference participants discuss benefits of desalination. Scientists and experts presented more than 50 different poster concepts during the poster session. Photo by Bud Russo.
WRRI conference participants discuss benefits of desalination. Scientists and experts presented more than 50 different poster concepts during the poster session. Photo by Bud Russo.
“We’ve got a $5.4 billion state budget,” he said. Oil and gas royalties contribute $1.4 billion to that budget each year. “I’d say that’s a pretty good return on your investment, if you get 30 percent of your budget from 0.2 of one percent of your water use,” Henke said.

To reduce its use of fresh water, industry chemists, Henke explained, are working to find ways to use recycled water suitable for hydraulic fracturing. “It’s an investment we’re willing to make in community support and our social license to operate in the state,” he said, adding, “We want to protect precious water resources in New Mexico through engineering, wellbore design, and safe practices, and we want to reduce our impact on the overall system that obviously is under stress.”

For the municipal perspective, conference participants listened to John Stomp of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, and Dale Dekker, an architect with Dekker, Perich, Sabatini Architects, Engineers and Planners.

Stomp outlined Albuquerque’s efforts at conservation. He charted efforts begun in 1995, when the city per capita per day water use was 252 gallons. “We were considered the water wasters of the West,” he said. The water authority set conservation goals and in 20 years cut water usage to less than 135 gallons per capita per day.

Dekker brought a different perspective to the group. He spoke of two trends that impact water use. “In Albuquerque,” he said, “about three percent of our food is locally produced.” The Urban Management Institute is looking into what it would take to grow 50 percent of the city’s food by 2040. “Reserving the resources to do that will be important,” Dekker said.

The other trend is toward 24/7 communities in which people live, work, and play, all within walking distance. He noted two developments in Albuquerque toward this end. Higher density residences use less water, Dekker said, from about 126 gallons per capita per day to about 70 gallons.

Water stress is not just an issue for the Rio Grande valley. “It’s a global issue,” Dekker said. “We’re a thirsty planet.” By the end of the decade, he added, 3.2 billion people are going to live in water-stressed conditions. “That’s New Mexico times 1600. It’s hard to fathom what the impact of water stress is going to be on a global basis.”

Dekker continued, “Our Rio Grande watershed is really a living, full-scale research-and-development lab. The Rio Grande watershed could become a test bed for many of the technologies, many of the processes, many of the policies applied globally to deal with this problem. We have the intellectual capital, the engineering, and infrastructure to deal with it here in our state.”

As the 21st century unfolds, it remains to be seen if New Mexicans will find an equitable and fair way to apportion a scarce resource that will only become even more scarce. Will we continue to fight or will we hear the words of Mahatma Gandhi, spoken in 1947: “Earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s need but not enough for any man’s greed.”

Secretary Jon Barela: Our water crisis is an opportunity

At the Water Resources Research Institute’s annual conference in November, Las Cruces native Jon Barela, who is New Mexico Secretary for Economic Development, told participants, “I very much believe the crisis we’re in presents our state with a unique opportunity to create many thousands of jobs. I am not underestimating the potential we have for that opportunity.”

He spoke of current drought conditions, paraphrasing Dr. Michael Hightower of Sandia Laboratories, who was in attendance at the conference. Barela said, “We’re in the midst of a 300-year drought, probably year 30 or so, according to scientific data. He pointed to California, telling the audience the policies the government is applying, according to experts, will not solve their short-term water problems. He also recognized aquifers in New Mexico are being stressed and water use is not declining, especially in the area of agriculture. “Crisis creates opportunity,” he said, “and, with regard to water, that’s the state we’re in right now.”

Barela continued, “New Mexico is well positioned to be the center for water research excellence in the country. We have a finite window of opportunity to claim that.” He went on to praise the academic work being done in New Mexico universities. “The intellectual property being developed here is truly remarkable.”

The problem, Barela said, is how to take what’s being produced in university research labs and commercialize it. In the upcoming legislative session, he noted, Gov. Martinez will propose funding technology research collaborative (TRC) requests. These will be the funding mechanism to take ideas emerging from water research to actual commercialization projects. The TRC funding will focus specifically on heavy industry recycling and desalination as well as agricultural uses.

As a case in point, Barela referenced a recent success story. “We announced the opening of Global Fashion Technologies in an unused industrial facility just south of Belen. It will create 400 well-paying jobs.” The company recycles old cotton … “your old jeans and tee-shirts” … and weaves it into a breathable fabric for use by clothing manufacturers. “We know cotton is a very thirsty product,” Barela said. “This very exciting technology will save millions of gallons of water.”

The secretary said he’s often asked how many jobs commercializing water research technologies will create. “I truly believe within four years, we can create up to a few thousand great-paying jobs if we focus our resources accordingly,” he said. “Most importantly, we’ll take our water crisis and turn it into an opportunity.”