Curry draining aquifer too fast, state engineer says

By Jack King

Ogallala Aquifer water under Curry County is being used up at a rate almost five times faster than it can be recharged, the director of the State Engineer’s water rights division said here Wednesday.
Paul Saavedra, who addressed a meeting of Clovis’ water policy advisory board at city hall, said an estimated 210,000 acre feet of water were used in Curry County in 2000. But, given 16 inches of rain or snow a year, the aquifer recharges itself at an average rate of 44,000 acre feet a year, he said.
CIovis/Curry County Chamber of Commerce representative Gene Hendricks said the rate of use might even be higher.
In 2001, Curry County had more than 130,000 acres of land under agricultural cultivation. At 3 acre feet of water per acre — the amount allowed by the State Engineer for agriculture use — that alone accounted for more water than 210,000 acre feet, he said.
Saavedra was invited by water policy advisory board Chairman Randy Crowder to discuss the State Engineer’s plans for managing water in this region and to answer audience questions about water issues.
The fastest rates of aquifer draw-down in this area are found under Clovis, Portales and adjacent areas, and along the Texas border, he said.
A new management plan being developed by the State Engineer’s Office is aimed at slowing depletion of the aquifer while allowing for future development, he said.
The plan is based on a new computer model that can predict draw-down and maintain an inventory of water rights in the area. The State Engineer’s Office hopes to hold public meetings on it, in this area, before the end of the year, Saavedra said.
Saavedra was reassuring about some aspects of any action planned by the State Engineer.
For one thing, it will not be possible to deprive water rights holders of rights for which they already have received permits or were using before local water basins were declared by the State Engineer, he said.
Under New Mexico law, the state owns all water, but the right to use it is a property right. Under the doctrine of “prior appropriation,” the earliest users have the strongest claim, he said.
“The state cannot cut your water rights,” he told Curry County farmer Doug Reid. “It’s in the (state) constitution. The only way to cut water is through a ‘priority call,’ where the newest water rights are cut first,” he said.
Also, farmers participating in federal conservation programs that take agricultural land out of irrigation will not lose their water rights, Saavedra said.
“A state statute allows those participating in a government-approved program to be exempt from ‘use it or lose it’ regulations,” he said.
Saavedra said the State Engineer’s office will continue issuing permits for domestic wells — those used for irrigation of no more than one acre of non-commercial vegetation. A bill in the last session proposed giving the office the power to deny domestic well permits in “critical management areas,” where reduced water production and reduced thickness of an aquifer indicate problems. But, the bill was defeated, he said.
Don D’Amore, co-owner of Clovis’ Roman Well Service Inc., asked Saavedra if the State Engineer plans to reduce the allowable size of domestic wells in critical management areas. Saavedra replied, “Not now,” and added that, if such a program occurred, existing wells would be “grandfathered in.”
On the other hand, Saavedra admitted, changing agricultural water to domestic well use would require jumping through some bureaucratic hoops.
“There would have to be water left to pump (in the same part of the basin),” he told Crowder.
If there were no protests to the change, the process could take two months. If there were protests, it could take as long as two years, Saavedra said.
“I got my questions answered, even if I didn’t always like the answers,” Crowder said.