October 3, 2008

Proposed Pecos Water Deal Still Needs State’s Approval


New Mexico's Interstate Stream Commission would have to scrutinize a proposal by five farmers to ship water 145 miles via pipeline from Fort Sumner to the city of Santa Fe.

The Eastern New Mexico community of Fort Sumner is in the Pecos River basin. Any water pumped out of that area could affect agreements under the Pecos River Compact, which guarantees Texas a portion of Pecos River flows each year.

The last time New Mexico was caught short-changing the Lone Star State it cost New Mexican taxpayers almost $70 million and took thousands of irrigated farm land out of production.

The nine-member commission, which has broad powers to protect New Mexico waters and settle conflicts with other states over shared waters, wants to make sure nothing upsets the arrangement again.

Roswell businessman Ron Green of Berrendo LLC represents Fort Sumner farmers who want to sell 6,850 acre-feet of irrigation water a year to Santa Fe and area developers. One acre-foot of water equals 325,851 gallons of water. The proposed pipeline would run from Fort Sumner, in De Baca County, north through Vaughn and Clines Corners to Santa Fe.

Before the farmers and Berrendo could sell water to Santa Fe, they would have to get approval from both the Interstate Stream Commission and the state engineer.

"We would have to evaluate how (the deal) impacts the water accounting for the Pecos River compact," said Bhasker Rao, the Pecos River water bureau chief for the Interstate Stream Commission.

The farmers must also prove they have the legal right to the water. "Any water they propose to transfer must have been historically and beneficially used," Rao said.

The state engineer would have to make sure such a water deal didn't hurt other water users, conservation efforts or public welfare in the Fort Sumner area.

Green said the Berrendo deal would actually use less water in the Pecos River Basin than if the farmers keep irrigating their fields.

Texas sued New Mexico for under-delivering Pecos River water years ago. A settlement reached in 2003 required New Mexico to dry up a total of 11,000 acres of irrigated farm land in the Roswell area, 6,000 acres in the Carlsbad Irrigation District and 1,000 acres around Fort Sumner.

The state Legislature so far has appropriated $69.8 million for the first phase of the Pecos River settlement to buy water rights, lease water and build pipelines. Rao said it will likely require more money in the future to complete the settlement.

The Berrendo proposal also would allow the company and the farmers to collect and resell treated wastewater from the city sewage system downstream.

Jim Sizemore, chief of water rights for the State Engineer, said Green had discussed the proposal with them. Sizemore told him if the company kept the treated effluent in a private system, it could do what they wanted with it. But if the treated wastewater reaches a public waterway like a river, it belongs to the state.

"They wanted to dump it into the Santa Fe River and then resell it down by Socorro," Sizemore said. "We told them no."

John Draper, an attorney with the Montgomery and Andrews firm representing Berrendo, said the company could seek a permit from the state engineer for rights to use a portion of the treated city wastewater if the Fort Sumner deal goes through.

Proponents of the 145-mile water pipeline approached Santa Fe County as well as the city of Santa Fe with their business proposal.

"The feasibility of that, in our view, is at this point very questionable," said Doug Sayre, the county's water/wastewater operations manager. "That's bringing water from an awfully long ways away."

Sayre said Berrendo representatives didn't have much detail about their plans when he asked them questions. Unless he gets more information, he said, he's unlikely to approach county commissioners about the idea.

"As far as we were concerned, it was a very preliminary discussion," he said.

The city hydrologist said Wednesday that she would only move ahead with project talks if Fort Sumner area leaders approved in writing.

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