Livestock along the dry Pecos River near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Amid the worst drought on record, the anger of southeastern New Mexico's farmers and ranchers is boiling. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / The New York Times

26 March 2013

CARLSBAD, NEW MEXICO (The New York Times) – Just after the local water board announced this month that its farmers would get only one-tenth of their normal water allotment this year, Ronnie Walterscheid, 53, stood up and called on his elected representatives to declare a water war on their upstream neighbors.

“It’s always been about us giving up,” Mr. Walterscheid said, to nods. “I say we push back hard right now.”

The drought-fueled anger of southeastern New Mexico’s farmers and ranchers is boiling, and there is nowhere near enough water in the desiccated Pecos River to cool it down. Roswell, about 75 miles to the north, has somewhat more water available and so is the focus of intense resentment here. Mr. Walterscheid and others believe that Roswell’s artesian wells reduce Carlsbad’s surface water.

For decades, the regional status quo meant the northerners pumped groundwater and the southerners piped surface water. Now, amid the worst drought on record, some in Carlsbad say they must upend the status quo to survive. They want to make what is known as a priority call on the Pecos River.

A priority call, an exceedingly rare maneuver, is the nuclear option in the world of water. Such a call would try to force the state to return to what had been the basic principle of water distribution in the West: the lands whose owners first used the water — in most cases farmland — get first call on it in times of scarcity. Big industries can be losers; small farmers winners.

The threat of such a move reflects the political impact of the droughts that are becoming the new normal in the West. “A call on the river is a call for a shakeout,” explained Daniel McCool, a University of Utah political scientist and author of River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers.

“It’s not going to be farmers versus environmentalists or liberals versus conservatives,” he said. “It’s going to be the people who have water versus the people who don’t.” And, he said, the have-nots will outnumber the haves.

Dudley Jones, the manager for the Carlsbad Irrigation District said that water law and allocation practice have long diverged. “We have it in the state Constitution: First in time, first in right. But that’s not how it’s practiced.” In New Mexico’s political pecking order, his alfalfa farmers, despite senior priority rights dating back 100 years, have little clout. The state water authorities, he said, “are not going to cut out the city.”

“They’re not going to cut out the dairy industry,” he added. “They’re not going to cut off the oil and gas industry, because that’s economic development. So we’re left with a dilemma — the New Mexico water dilemma.”

A priority call, said Dr. McCool, “will glaringly demonstrate how unfair, how anachronistic the whole water law edifice is.”

He added, “The all-or-nothing dynamic of prior appropriation instantly sets up conflict. I get all of mine, and you get nothing.”

Despite the support Mr. Walterscheid got from two of the Carlsbad Irrigation District’s five members, however, the March 12 meeting produced not a priority call, but an ultimatum: The Legislature should give Carlsbad $2.5 million to tide it over, or the water district will make the call and start a traumatic legal and scientific battle.

“If we turned off every one of our pumps today, they wouldn’t see any more water,” said Aron Balok, the district’s manager. Nonetheless, the bounty of the Roswell-Artesia aquifer, which has produced a robust economy, including abundant dairies, an oil refinery and the West’s biggest mozzarella plant, gives rise to “just plain jealousy” in Carlsbad, he said.

“If the priority call were executed today,” Mr. Balok said, “the refinery would shut down. The cheese plant would shut down. The dairies would shut down. To what end? It wouldn’t make water appear.” The agreement made to settle the dispute with Texas was supposed to stop such brinkmanship. But, he said, “Nobody ever foresaw it being this dry for this long.”

How dry is it? In 2012, parts of the riverbed were dry for 77 days, said Mike Hamman, the area manager for the federal Bureau of Reclamation in Albuquerque. In 2011, with the drought sending feed prices up, the Clovis Livestock auction house, the region’s biggest, sold 144,000 head of cattle, 20 percent above average. “Some herds have sold out,” said the president, Charlie Rogers. Most ranchers have reduced their herds to 25 percent of their previous size, he said. Hay, he said, costs too much. [more]

New Mexico Farmers Seek ‘Priority Call’ as Drought Persists



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