May 01, 2003

New Mexico Farmers Bring About Deal to Relinquish Reservoir Water to Texas

Having made the final payment on dam construction in the 1970s, farmers in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District said they have a vested interest in the Elephant Butte Reservoir.

This vested interest was a strong argument that helped bring about the Rio Grande Project agreement last week to relinquish 122,500 acre feet of "credit water" from the Elephant Butte Reservoir into the EBID, El Paso Water Conservation District No. 1 and Juarez Irrigation District.

The three irrigation districts make up the "Texas section" of the compact that extends south from the Elephant Butte Dam.

The Colorado and New Mexico sections have 217,900 acre-feet of credit water in the Elephant Butte Reservoir that was stored during years of ample snowpack runoff. But the water could not be released into the Texas section until the other two compact entities agreed to relinquish it.

The EBID involvement in the Rio Grande Compact goes back to 1904, when the Elephant Butte Water Users Association was formed to provide and distribute water to the shareholders' lands.

The Rio Grande Project was authorized in 1905 as a Bureau of Reclamation Project under the authority the Reclamation Act of 1902 to construct a dam on the Rio Grande. That same year, Congress approved the Rio Grande Reclamation Project Act, and in 1906, the United States and Mexico agreed to an international treaty that stipulated a delivery of 60,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Rio Grande to Juarez.

In 1906, the Elephant Butte Water Users Association and the El Paso Valley Water Users Association agreed to a construction contract that required shareholders to pay for the construction of the irrigation system. The Elephant Butte Dam construction was completed in 1916.

During the construction planning, the government also decided to organize a tri-state compact between New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua, Mexico, to provide equitable irrigation in the Lower Rio Grande Basin. The agreements led to the Rio Grande Compact in 1939, involving Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

The EBID was paid the first western U.S. irrigation district to settle its construction debt when it made its final payment in 1971, EBID Manager Gary Esslinger said.

EBID farmers bring in more revenue in the Mesilla and Hatch valleys than any other private industry, Esslinger said.

In 1986, the EBID farmers' gross revenue was $98 million. That was his last year of agricultural revenue records, but it shows the trend, Esslinger said.

From that gross, the farmers have to pay for fertilizers, herbicides, fuel, equipment servicing and labor, which turns over many times in the community. What is left is the farmers' net profit and what goes into his bank account.

The average 1986 crop value was $1,500 to $1,800 per acre. Vegetable crop, including chile, onions, lettuce and cabbage, exceeded $50 million in 1986.

In 1986, the EBID pecan industry contained 13,000 acres and brought in $26 million. The acreage is now 20,000 and the production value is $50 million, Esslinger said.

The 24,000 acres of alfalfa, one of the older crops and silage brought in $10 million in 1986. During the 2000s, the revenue for those two crops has doubled.

New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau President Mike White agreed with Gov. Bill Richardson that the water relinquishment agreement, "... is indeed a win-win agreement that protects the state's substantial agricultural resources.

"Farmers will be able to irrigate and grow our important food and fiber crops up and down the Rio Grande while preserving recreational opportunities at Elephant Butte Lake. We appreciate the efforts put forth by Gov. Richardson and his team in negotiating a viable agreement that is good news for all the stake holders."

Erik Ness, New Mexico Farm and Livestock public relations director in Las Cruces, added, "Farmers have already given up their major allotment of irrigation water this season. The farmers along the Rio Grande have already made the big sacrifices." He also reminded that the Elephant Butte Dam was construction for water storage and flood control.

"With that being said, farmers and recreation businesses will have to work together to find an equitable solution for all concerned," Ness said.

Farmers use efficient ways to irrigate their crop fields and they constantly seek better way to conserve water. No water is wasted, he said.

"We have empathy for the folks up at Truth or Consequence," Ness said. "But our No. 1 concern is for farmers who grow food. And, after all, a lot of farmers are fishermen, too.

"Farmers are going to get through this water shortage. They have in the past, and they will in the future." But the legal mandates have not changed with the drought.

"When it comes to the law, the Rio Grande Compact requires that we live within the confines of the compact," Ness said.

White referred to some new statistics from the Acequia Commission Study, which reviewed the state's economy, but in two separate sections, rural and Bernalillo County. The study dealt with Bernalillo separately because Albuquerque had such a high rate of light industry.

By including Bernalillo in the broad industry scale, agriculture ranks 12th in the state economy. But by removing Bernalillo from the ranking, agriculture is among the top four state industries, right up in the rating with construction, real estate and retail trade, including tourism, according to the commission study.