Experts: Underground aquifer water supply draining fast

By William P. Thompson

Irrigated farming, as area residents know it, could become a thing of the past in eastern New Mexico.
A water expert, hydrogeologist Amy Ewing, gave statistics Monday night that project water saturation thickness in the underground aquifer beneath Curry and Roosevelt counties will be at an all-time low of less than 100 feet by 2020.
Ewing’s company, Daniel Stephens and Associates, an Albuquerque water consulting firm, furnished information at a public meeting in Portales that an “aquifer’s usable life is considered to end when its saturation thickness is 30 feet or less.”
The saturation thickness is the depth of the water from the aquifer’s bottom, which is called the “red bed.”
Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega Jr., the vice chairman of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority, said there are already areas in the county where the saturation thickness of the aquifer water is less than 40 feet.
“One hundred feet of saturation thickness is probably the best-case scenario for a well now,” Ortega said. “I’m not sure but I think that’s probably right.”
“Water levels are falling, and they are not going back up,” Ewing said. “It (the end of the aquifer) just depends on how much is pumped out.”
Ewing is helping put together the Northeast New Mexico Regional Water Plan. The purpose of the meeting in Portales was to get ideas from the public on what the plan should emphasize. She said the plan itself will not impose new laws or force irrigation farmers to adopt new conservation measures, but members of the plan’s steering committee could urge municipal and county governments to adopt certain ordinances.
During her presentation, Ewing said that irrigation farming is responsible for the bulk of the water pumped out of the underground aquifer. She revealed some strategies the water plan hopes to address. She said the plan will be submitted to the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission by June 30.
The Ute Lake Pipeline Project is an important alternative. Janet Wolfe, a communications manager with Daniel Stephens and Associates, said the pipeline project, if implemented, will only address municipal and industrial water supply in the area.
Where irrigation water will come from in the future remains the problem. Nine people attended Monday night’s meeting in addition to the presenters. No one had an answer.
Irene Jones, part of a Roosevelt County farming family, said she and her husband know irrigation is on the way out.
“The bottom line is the water will run out,” Jones said. “We are converting farm land to grassland. The land is not sustainable as cropland. Rangeland and dryland are the future.”
Agricultural conservation of water is key to delaying depletion of the aquifer, and Ewing presented some conservation options she said were talked about at previous public meetings.
She won some support at the Portales meeting for the idea of metering wells on area farms, but she said that wasn’t a popular idea at a previous meeting in Clovis. One audience member at Monday’s meeting voiced his support for more efficient irrigation equipment, which Ewing duly noted.
In a 60-year period, the water level in the underground aquifer beneath Roosevelt County dropped more than 90 feet.
In 1944, the water was 18 feet below ground. In 2004, it was 110 feet below ground, according to statistics provided by Ewing.