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‘Landmark’ water agreement discussed

Hannah Riseley-White with the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission acknowledges some drawbacks about the 2003 Pecos Settlement Agreement, but says it is the state’s “strongest tool” in meeting the requirements of the 1948 Pecos River Compact. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Representatives of a state commission say a 2003 settlement agreement involving the Pecos River Basin is working well, but some agreed that concerns raised by agricultural producers deserve attention.

“It certainly has proven to be the state’s strongest tool in meeting the requirements of the compact,” said Hannah Riseley-White, Pecos River bureau chief with the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, about the 2003 Pecos Settlement Agreement.

She added that success under the agreement means that “New Mexico has been able to keep control of the Pecos River.”

Riseley-White gave an overview of what has occurred under the agreement over the past 10 years during a Thursday meeting in Artesia.

In attendance were landowners, farmers and dairy operators, government officials, State Reps. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-District 58, and Jim Townsend, R-District 54, and representatives from the parties to the settlement. Those parties include the Carlsbad Irrigation District; the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District, with headquarters in Roswell; the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and its parent organization, the Office of the State Engineer.

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Although agreed upon in 2003, the agreement was only implemented in June 2009 because it took the state years to build pipelines and other infrastructure, drill or upgrade augmentation wells, and acquire about 12,000 acres of water rights to supplement deliveries to Texas when needed, endeavors that cost about $130 million.

The 2003 Pecos Settlement Agreement seeks to make it possible for New Mexico to meet its legal obligations required by a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision related to the 1948 Pecos River Compact.

The Supreme Court found in 1988 that New Mexico had repeatedly undelivered water as required by the compact, with Texas owed about 270,000 acre feet of water at that time.

The ruling set the water debt to zero, fined New Mexico $14 million, appointed a federal river master to resolve disputes regarding accounting for water amounts, and required New Mexico to meet all future obligations.

But disagreements among water management agencies and irrigation districts in southeast New Mexico made meeting the court-ordered mandates difficult, even though the state spent about $34 million to supplement water supplies. That’s when interested parties came up with the settlement agreement.

With the settlement mechanisms in place, the state has been able to accumulate a water credit under the compact of about 150,000 acre feet, Riseley-White said.

She did acknowledge that the agreement has drawbacks, though, including its expense and its affect on landowners when the state purchases water rights. During extreme drought years, it also has proven difficult to satisfy all parties, with the Carlsbad Irrigation District making a priority call in 2013 after a couple of years of extreme drought. Priority calls mean that its district members have all of its water rights satisfied before those of well owners or irrigators in the Pecos Valley basin.

Representatives from the Carlsbad Irrigation District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation agreed that the settlement has been a step forward.

“As difficult as it is and as important as it, it has been a good one here as far as people still being at the table,” said Dale Ballard, superintendent of the Carlsbad Irrigation District.

But Ronald Norris, who runs a farm southwest of Hagerman, and Allen Squire, one of the owners of Southwind Dairy in Hagerman, expressed concerns.

Norris said that in 2011 and 2012, during an extreme drought, he shut off one of his irrigation pumps and had low output from other pumps. He attributed the water depletion at his wells to the Interstate Stream Commission’s augmentation well fields, the Lake Arthur Well Field and the Seven Rivers Well Field near Artesia. Those well fields were created as part of the settlement to provide additional water to the Carlsbad Irrigation District when needed or for delivery of water directly to the state line for Texas.

Rep. Ezzell asked officials to pay close attention to how those wells and the purchase of water rights affect the southeast New Mexico agricultural industry.

“You don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” she said. “The agricultural industry is our tax base.”

Norris said that he has looked into purchasing other water rights in case of future droughts, but said that he has found it difficult to locate affordable water rights that can be transferred to his property.

Riseley-White and Daniel Davis, Interstate Stream Commission Technical Supervisor, said that new variable frequency drivers installed on pumps should help regulate water usage. They added that discussions on other ways to alleviate impacts are continuing.

Squire said that his primary concern is with the domestic wells that noncommercial landowners are allowed to drill in Chaves County.

Neither state or county regulations restrict the usage of water by domestic well owners, so commercial well owners, which do have their water metered, have found that their water supplies are being depleted when large numbers of noncommercial wells are drilled in their area.

“State and county regulations allow land owners to drill domestic wells without any metering or water use restrictions,” he said. “If large amounts of water are pumped out of the Lake Arthur well field into the Pecos River, both the artesian and the shallow aquifers will be drained down to the point that many wells in the impacted area could run out of water. It is that drastic.”

Aron Balok, superintendent of the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District; Louis Jaramillo, Chaves County Planning and Zoning Director and some others acknowledged that the issue is of major concern to them. Some in the audience noted that areas around Santa Fe and Truth or Consequences have instituted policies to meter domestic wells.

Riseley-White agreed that the state commission might need to become involved in discussions about the problem.

“I am concerned about this issue,” she said. “The state has invested a lot in this settlement agreement, so I don’t want to see it damaged by future development.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.