Area could be dry by 2040 — or maybe sooner

Water takes on even more importance in the High Plains, where agriculture is one of the leading businesses.

By Claire Bushey

The question of how much water is left in the eastern New Mexico area has bedeviled politicians and business owners, scientists and ordinary consumers for decades. The answer is still unknown.
New Mexico-American Water Co. officials have said they are prepared to provide eastern New Mexico with water through 2040. But Clovis Mayor David Lansford said the area could be out of water in 16 years.
A report from the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer stated that in 1995 Curry County depleted the Ogallala Aquifer — the region’s main water source — by 206,898 acre feet of water, or more than 67 trillion gallons.
A July 2000 regional water plan put out by the Eastern Plains Council of Governments estimated the region’s water supply was good for more than 30 years, if we continue to use it at the same rate.
The plan uses information taken from the state engineer. It estimates the aquifer has about 35 years of life left in Curry County southeast of Clovis, and 33 years in Roosevelt County east of Portales.
Lansford said he based his calculations on numbers from a hydrologist hired by Duke Energy when that company was researching whether to build a plant in Clovis.
According to the Duke study, there are 725,000 acre feet of water in the Ogallala Aquifer within a 10-mile radius of New Mexico-American Water’s wells. One acre foot is about 326,000 gallons, so there are more than 236 billion gallons of water in that 10-mile radius.
Between municipal and agricultural demand, the region uses 45,000 acre feet per year. Dividing the supposed supply by the current demand shows there are about 16 years of water left for the region.
“As long as current usage stays the same, water company figures are optimistic,” Lansford said.
Kathy Wright, vice president and manager of New Mexico-American Water Co., said she is not familiar with the Duke study, only with its conclusion, which New Mexico-American officials dispute.
“David and I have had this conversation, and we can’t say which one is right,” she said.
No one debates the aquifer is being drained faster than it is being replenished.
Rainfall alone replenishes the Ogallala, said Paul Saavedra, director of water rights for New Mexico. Lee Tillman, executive director of Eastern Plains Council of Governments, said the aquifer decreases between 1 and 3 feet annually and is recharged at less than one-fourth of an inch each year.
“Just like a mine gets played out, so does an aquifer,” said Associate Professor Phil King, a water resources engineer at New Mexico State University.
The water flow from New Mexico-American Water’s wells has decreased since the company began providing the region with water in 1986, said Director of Communications Kevin Tilden. Thirty wells supply 17.03 million gallons of water per day to the Clovis area. But in the mid-1990s, the company only operated 24 wells to produce the same volume of water, Tilden said.
In February 2001, the water company purchased new water rights to 4,500 acres in southern Curry County, Tilden said. Company officials made the decision to buy the land because eight months of research by a hydrologist showed the water supply was shifting in that direction.
The new wells the company plans to drill on its new land will serve the area for the next 30 to 40 years, Tilden said. After that, the company and the state engineer’s office will have to examine other options, including using the Ute Reservoir, a Quay County reservoir built in the early 1960s, to meet future water needs.
“A lot of it depends on the (planned pipeline from) Ute Reservoir,” Tilden said. “If that comes through it solves a lot of problems. If it doesn’t, we have to look at other options.”
Those options may present themselves sooner than the water company anticipates if Mayor Lansford’s estimate is closer to the truth.