Fallowing land to conserve groundwater not enough, New Mexico lawmakers say

A state program that pays Lower Rio Grande farmers not to pump groundwater for a year to gauge how it might help the aquifer during the drought drew criticisms from lawmakers Wednesday.

The state Legislative Finance Committee received an update on the program, which awards grant money to farmers dependent on groundwater irrigation to quit pumping. For most, that will result in them taking land out of production, also known as fallowing.

The purpose is to determine the effect of reduced groundwater use in the lower valley, which stretches between Elephant Butte Dam and the Texas border. Putting less strain on the aquifer also will enhance its health and improve the efficiency of river water delivery, state officials said.

About $17 million was initially earmarked for the program, but the funding was reduced in last year’s special legislative session to $7 million.

So far, the state has agreed to pay farmers a total of 24 grants to stop pumping on 1,400 acres. Grants will range between $400 and $800 per acre.

State Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said the fallowed farmland will be a minute portion of the 90,000 acres in the lower valley.

“That’s a drop in the bucket — it’s inconsequential here in the Lower Rio Grande,” Cervantes said. “Spending our way out of our water problem is not the solution. There will never be enough money.”

Cervantes also criticized the absence of farmers and regional water managers at the hearing, saying they could offer the best assessment of the program.

“Where are the farmers here today?” Cervantes said. “Where are they to say, ‘Here’s why we participated, here’s why we didn’t participate. Here’s why we think this is great, here’s why we don’t think it’s great?’ ”

To be eligible, a farmer’s parcel must be at least 10 acres in size and must have been irrigated either solely with groundwater or a blend of groundwater and surface water for at least four out of the past five years.

The state will monitor grant recipients via site visits, photos, remote sensing and meter readings to ensure they carry out the fallowing, said John Longworth, an engineer with the Interstate Stream Commission, the agency helping to oversee the program.

Longworth said the state worked with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and regional farming groups to establish the program.

State Rep. Jack Chatfield, R-Mosquero, said he is no fan of fallowing as a long-term approach to water management because the costs are underestimated.

Farmers often decide to develop the fallow land and give up on cultivating it, Chatfield said.

“It is replaced by homes, which use more water than the farm does,” Chatfield said.

When land is intentionally dried up, a family that was working the farm often leaves the community, draining dollars from the local economy, he said.

“It is really noticeable in our smaller communities,” Chatfield said.

Chatfield said it wasn’t clear to him how reducing groundwater use would make surface water delivery more efficient, because the two types of water are inextricably tied.

Aside from voluntary fallowing, the program also looks to develop strategies to recharge the aquifer and improve infrastructure, Longworth said.

A technical team will analyze how much groundwater is saved during the first stage to decide future areas for awarding grants, he said.

State Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, said given the weakening yearly snowpack, the state must look beyond conserving groundwater. That might include using brackish and other types of water to boost supply, he added.

Cervantes said he was concerned that more than half of the $2 million spent so far on this program has gone to engineering and administrative costs.

For that reason, it was for the best that the initial $17 million in funding was reduced, he said, because it would’ve yielded only a little more fallowing.

“This is the story of our water policy,” Cervantes said. “We spend all our money on the lawyers and the engineers and the administration of money that we appropriate rather than accomplishing anything.”

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