Wednesday, March 27, 2013

New Mexico water wars pit rural against urban, sorta'

Felicity Barringer openly discussed the rural-urban contest over water in her report for the New York Times yesterday. The headline is "New Mexico Farmers Seek 'Priority Call' as Drought Persists," and the dateline is Carlsbad, population 26,296, along the Pecos River, in the southeastern part of the state.  There, alfalfa farmers and cattle ranchers are considering exercising a rarely used "priority call," which basically reflects the first-in-time, first-in-right principle.  They would be invoking the priority call for water from the Pecos against Roswell, a city of only about 50,000, 75 miles to the north.

The "northerners" of Roswell have long pumped groundwater from the Roswell-Artesia aquifer, and those farther south around Carlsbad have taken surface water.  But the current drought, which left parts of the Pecos River dry for 77 days in 2012, means there's too little water left in the river to meet the needs of those around Carslbad, which are mostly agricultural.  Barringer explains the legal move that Carlsbad is now considering:
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.
Barringer quotes Dudley Jones, manager of the Carlsbad Immigration District, for the proposition that law and 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 the "political pecking order," Carlsbad's alfalfa farmers, despite their first-in-time right, "have little clout," Jones comments, predicting that the state water authorities will not "cut out the city.”
They’re not going to cut out the dairy industry.  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.
As this quote makes clear, not all of Roswell's interests are typically urban. They include ag and extraction enterprises typically associated with rural economies, but also industrial aspects of those enterprises, including an oil refinery and the state's largest cheese factory.  Indeed, most would not consider a city of 50,000 to be urban.  But Barringer closes with a quote from Dr. Daniel McCool, a University of Utah political scientist and author of River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers.  He frames the conundrum in somewhat starker rural-urban terms and makes clear that more is at stake than little ol' Roswell in the West's water wars.
Let’s see, we could dry up some hay farms or we could dry up Las Vegas. Which one is it going to be? It’s going to be the new economy of the West with the focus on recreation and tourism and hunting.  There will be farming ghost towns.

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