Communities gather to share views on water issues

Darrell Todd Maurina

Nearly 100 people at a regional public comment forum Wednesday night urged staff members of the Interstate Stream Commission to consider views ranging from respecting private property and water use rights to emphasizing a community need for water.
Rhea Graham, director of planning and communications for the Interstate Stream Commission, told those who turned out at the Clovis Public Library that the commission must draft a state water use plan for the governor’s approval by the end of the year and is taking public comments until Sept. 15 at a series of 29 meetings around the state. New Mexico currently does not have a water use plan, but if approved by the governor and a legislative committee, the plan would determine future state water rules.
Tom Howe, public works director for Portales, said Graham’s request for ideas on balancing supply and demand may be impossible.
“Balancing supply and demand sounds really good, but right now nobody knows how much supply we have and how much demand we have,” Howe said. “I’m from Portales and we’ve hired three hydrologists and we got three different answers. I’m sure one of them is right because they are so widely different.”
“You just can’t keep going writing checks without knowing how much you have in your checkbook or how much you’re writing the checks for,” Howe said.
Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega said agricultural water use greatly exceeds urban water use, and his city has a 40 year water plan to triple water capacity within 10 years to meet expected population growth.
“We recently purchased two large farms that adjoin our water well field and it was estimated that one of those farms needed as much water as the entire city of Portales,” Ortega said.
While urban areas may have most of the areas’ population, local farmers urged the commission to remember that many of them paid for water rights decades ago and restricting their access to water means they cannot farm.
“In the West, if you lose your water rights you lose everything, that’s just the way it is,” said Logan rancher Johnna Bruhn. “If you dry up one farmer this year and one farmer the next year and the water’s all gone, it’s a short term solution that doesn’t solve anything.”
“This is not an issue that can be addressed solely in New Mexico,” said Clovis farmer Vincent DeMaio. “Texas has unlimited draws on water and they’re only a few miles across the line.”
Graham confirmed that Texas allows property owners to pump groundwater under their property without the sort of permits New Mexico requires on the grounds that pumping also drain water from neighbors.
Others urged the state to look at federal water use.
“If you have any kind of conservation program, you’ve got to get everyone involved,” said Clovis farmer Wesley Myers. “I was out at the (Cannon Air Force) base and they’ve got the prettiest golf course you’ve ever seen. It doesn’t do any good if we conserve and the base just goes wild.”
Others urged “thinking outside the box” plans such as piping water from the Mississippi, desalinization plants taking water from the Gulf of Mexico, or even redirecting the proceeds of the state lottery from education to benefit farmers.
Howe said the real need isn’t for new laws but rather enforcing existing water use laws.
“If you would just enforce the law, it’d solve a lot of these problems, but the State Engineer would probably get lynched and the Interstate Stream Commission building would get burned down because you’d end up putting farmers out of business,” Howe said.