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ABC-7 investigates water pumping in New Mexico

By Matthew Smith, Good Morning El Paso Weekend Anchor / Reporter
Published On: May 01 2013 06:23:28 PM CDT
Updated On: Jan 15 2014 07:19:29 PM CST

Reporter: Matthew Smith

EL PASO, Texas -

The water release from the Caballo Dam in Dona Ana County will come later than in years past.

     On June 1, hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water will be released. On a typical year, 43-percent of the water released will make it to the El Paso Water irrigation district, but there is a growing concern the correct amount of water won't make it to Texas.

     "The state of Texas feels like there is a lot of water that is being taken out of the river, or that is impacting the river," explained Pat Gordon, the Rio Grande Compact commissioner for Texas.

     This year, Texas filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court suing New Mexico over water rights. The main complaint made in the suit is that water is being diverted illegally. Gordon says the issue varies between too many pumps operating to illegal pumping that is not being overseen by the local water improvement district.

     To understand the issue you have to go back, way back, to 1938. That's when the Rio Grande Compact was formed between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

     As a result of the compact, Texas' water is accounted for at the Caballo Dam, roughly 90 miles north of Texas in New Mexico. According to Gordon, New Mexico's contention is that when they release water from the dam they've completed their deal.

Texas views the situation differently.

Since the water is released in New Mexico the water flows 90 miles before reaching Texas soil. According to Gordon, the state of New Mexico should be keeping track of who is taking water out of the river ensuring that the proper amount reaches Texas.

THE FARMER

It was more than 30 years ago when Ramon Tirres first began working crops in El Paso County. Tirres owns more than 2,000 acres of land. This year he only planted 600 acres. It wasn't by choice.

Farmers in El Paso rely on water distributed to them by the El Paso Water Improvement District. Each year calculations are made by the District to determine who gets what amount. The city of El Paso gets half of it's water from the river, while farmers are alotted what is left per acre.

In recent years farmers have had to hold onto land without planting anything on it. The water they're alotted for all of their land, ultimately ends up being directed to a fraction of the land to create a serviceable growing field.

"Every day is a new plan because it's just a day-to-day thing," said Tirres.

Last year was bad, this year has the makings for the worst season yet. In 2012, Tirres battled with the decision to keep on farmhands. He cut hours, but kept all ten of his workers on staff. He lost money. This year he cut five of his workers loose, and is still hoping to simply break even.

"That was an extremely excruciating situation for me because they were such good people," said Tirres. "The move had to be made. Well, now it's a matter of survival is what it is. We're down to a matter of survival."

For farmers like Tirres, who have pecan trees, the balancing act is especially hard. Trees take years to grow to their full potential. It's not really an option to not water a pecan tree unless you intend on it dying.

"Watching a crop die is something I just couldn't imagine," said Tirres.

That means planning for every possible twist and turn, and not over-planting cotton, alfalfa or other cash crops. Over-planting costs money as does keeping workers on who aren't needed. At this point, farmers need to be part mathematician, part forecaster.

"Every little bit we can think of, even planning trips to town to buy parts have to be planned so we don't make extra trips," said Tirres.

THE WATER DISTRICT

Meanwhile, confusion continues for those working closest to the Rio Grande.

Last week, the El Paso Water Improvement District took an ABC-7 crew on a tour of the Rio Grande. It took only a matter of hours to find more than five locations where wells existed that pumped water directly out of the Rio Grande. While pumping is permitted by the Elephant Butte Water District in New Mexico, those who are not part of the district are not allowed to. There is a growing feeling that what Texas officials call "illegal pumping" is occurring more and more often.

"About two years ago, I was sent up her just to check out the levee and see if there was any illegal pumping, or whatever," said Dan Harringer, a water improvement district worker. "I was amazed at what I found because I know in Texas we don't do this."

All along the Rio Grande you can find pumps that are built directly into the Rio Grande. Some, but not all, are believed to be regulated.

The concern is that water is being removed as a time it is needed the most.

When water is released from the Caballo Dam, the pumps could easily extract water that belongs to the Rio Grande Project -- more specifically, Texas.

"It doesn't look normal," said Harringer. "You can obviously see it's right in the Rio Grande itself, it's pumping from the floor of the river.

THE LAWSUIT

According to Commissioner Gordon, the lawsuit was 30 years in the making -- well before he began his work with the Rio Grande Compact. It's garnering more attention because the drought is being compared to the worst our area has ever been subjected too. Some say this is beginning to look worse than the infamous drought of the 1950s.

The lawsuit isn't simple though.

With New Mexico "delivering" it's water to Texas on New Mexican soil, there is confusion over what Texas is required to do.

Gordon said the lawsuit looks to ensure that Texas receives the proper amount of water that it's expected to get, but said the feeling he gets from New Mexico is that they have fulfilled their obligation once they release the water from Caballo Dam.

Gordon's concern lies within the 90 miles where New Mexico farmers can pickup water bound for Texas that isn't necessarily there water to take. Water is calculated for the Elephant Butte Water Improvement District, and the El Paso Water Improvement District has gone as far as making a compact with the New Mexico district to ensure they both receive the proper amount of water, but New Mexico attempted to invalidate the agreement. In other words, New Mexico went against a water district within it's own state.

ABC-7 reached out to New Mexico's Governor Susana Martinez for comment. An interview was not granted. However statements have been made out of her office in the past, the most recent in January where a spokesman said: "We will continue to strongly defend New Mexico's water rights. We are reviewing the Texas lawsuit and will decide how best to protect the water that is so vital to New Mexican families and businesses. We won't cede a single inch of New Mexico water to Texas."

The lawsuit may take between five and 10 years to settle assuming the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the suit. According to the compact made in 1938, any dispute between the states involved in the pact would have to be settled there. 

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