By Elise Kaplan
— The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District oversees dams, levees and ditches along 150 miles from Cochiti Reservoir to the Bosque del Apache. Although the District’s primary mission is protecting water rights for farmers and ensuring equitable distribution of resources, it also promotes recreation and nature exploration along the river’s banks.
As New Mexico enters its third year of drought, water issues are paramount. On May 13, the district stopped water bank deliveries due to a lack of resources. The bank allows farmers to lease water on an annual basis if their property doesn’t have water rights attached to it. The New Mexico Constitution ensures that those who have lived on the land the longest retain senior water rights. Pre-1907 land holders, including Pueblo communities, get highest priority.
Unlike other irrigation districts in New Mexico, the MRGCD is funded by property taxes from the area it serves. In 2010, taxes from Bernalillo Country residents made up 70 percent of the district’s revenue.
The election happened on Tuesday, June 4, for four of seven board positions. Voting is restricted to property owners, and residents of Bernalillo County can only vote for positions three and four. Incumbents Karen Dunning and Adrian Oglesby ran as a slate against Jim Roberts and Louis Trujillo, who also ran as a slate.
[UPDATE, June 5: Dunning and Oglesby won. See results here.]
The Compass spoke with the County candidates in the 2013 election about key issues.
How can the district improve upon fair water delivery to large and small farms?
Dunning says the District should be stricter in enforcement of the water policies to ensure that everyone schedules their water usage and sticks with the schedule. Enforcement is a particularly important issue this year because drought is creating a shortage. “The way you enforce it is you tell people if they do this again they will not get access to water,” she says. “In the past we haven’t ever had to do that because there was enough water.”
Oglesby says there have been concerns about preferential treatment of certain farmers, but the District has worked hard to police the staff and ensure water gets distributed fairly. The other issue, he adds, is equitable maintenance for all divisions within the MRGCD. “We need some sort of way to evaluate the system so that we can predict when things need to be repaired.”
Roberts says cleaning the ditches of debris aides the flow of the water and improves efficiency. As the drought has continued to worsen people will be tempted to push the limits and violate the policies in order to get a little bit of extra water, but he says cooperation is key. “I think people understand that we’re in a desperate situation and the ditch riders are doing a good job of getting the word out. We’re all in this together.”
Trujillo agrees with the existing policies giving senior water users with pre-1907 water rights priority over those who sign up for the water bank. The District’s job is to follow the rules set out by Congress dictating water distribution.“As board members we have to abide by the policies put forth by the governing body.”
Why is it important that the MRGCD is transparent? How will you continue to make sure agency information is available to the public?
Dunning says in the past the District has operated in a more secretive manner, although not necessarily intentionally. During the last four years she served on the board, she has worked on the Sunshine Portal to increase transparency and visibility through the website. “Now information about where money is spent, who we have contracts with, and even the salaries of people that work at the District are all on the website and people can go there and find it,” she says. “We have campaign donations that are reported on a voluntary basis, and I’ve reported everything, even if I don’t have to. I think it’s real important for the public to know as much as possible.”
Oglesby says the culture of the District has not always encouraged transparency but, along with Dunning, he has led the charge to bring in more professional, modern and ethical standards for operations. “In terms of transparency and governance, Karen and I and the chairman are working with the state Auditor’s Office to conduct an administrative and operational assessment of the District,” he says. “We need to determine how internal checks and balances and reports could be improved and modernized and help us save money so we can direct resources towards water and infrastructure instead.”
Roberts says he has seen a great deal of growth in the website’s transparency since he first began serving on the board in 2001, most of which is due to advancements to technology. “The current board has done a good job getting the transparency out there,” he says. “I think they’ve done a very good job with the website using the sunshine portal. It’s not anything I would do if I got elected, but I’d continue to improve on something that has been improved upon from the start.”
Trujillo says he believes the District has always operated in a transparent manner, and any information one might wish is easy to find. He says his opponents are taking credit for the portal website, but it already existed. “I’m 75 years old, and I’ve been irrigating since I was knee-high to a grasshopper with my grandfather and my dad, so I know what these water policies are. All they have to do is go on the website and it tells you everything you need to know,” he says. “My running mate Jim Roberts and I both agree on transparency. That should always be the case—especially in governmental agencies. But I disagree with these people who ran as reformers.”
How should the District improve the life of citizens who are not farmers?
Dunning says Albuquerque residents who aren’t irrigators can utilize the ditch system for walking, biking, horseback riding or viewing wildlife. She says that the District has raised and lowered taxes in response to development trends, and she’d like to see those taxes remain low. The early 2000s saw a growth in development so capital from taxes increased while demand for services decreased as less land was irrigated. “One of the things I feel real strongly about is that during those years when there was a lot of growth, the MRGCD built up a reserve fund, and that reserve fund was kept for a rainy day. I think the rainy day is here now because we have to fix El Vado dam and our infrastructure is really old,” she says. “I’d like to see the MRGCD have a capital long-term plan, so we know four years from now what we’ll have to spend. To do that without raising taxes, we’ll have to dip into those reserves.”
Oglesby says since more than 70 percent of the District’s revenue comes from the non-irrigators there should be more attention paid to their needs, including access to recreational trails. “We own 30,000 acres of the Bosque and the Rio Grande, which we have largely not managed ourselves,” he says. “We really need to create a focus on providing good service when it comes to environmental stewardship combined with recreation.”
Roberts says he loves watching people visit the valley and explore the natural resources the farms have to offer, whether by jogging, biking or riding a horse. During his two previous terms on the board, tax rates were lowered by 24 percent, an event he’d like to see repeated. In addition to lowering taxes, Roberts would like to see the District get more involved in the community, holding seminars and educating the public. “There are ways to come into neighborhoods and backyards and do more with the communities as far as education and being able to grow our own food,” he says. “There are ways to get people to grow their own food and bring the district into mainstream community.”
Trujillo says the District does so much more than irrigate farms, including maintaining levees along the river so homeowners don’t have to pay flood insurance and managing the drainage system. He says taxes could be lowered if the board spent less money on consultants and studies, and instead relied on the expertise of farmers like himself. “If we get on that board I’d like to have some informational newsletters to give people a little bit of information at a time. Another thing is we should re-evaluate where we’re spending our money. We want to have a surplus fund for emergencies like repairing the levees along the river,” he says. “I feel that there is enough money, and if we spend it wisely and efficiently then we should be able to lower the tax on our taxpayers.”
Are there any steps the MRGCD can take to alleviate the pressure of the drought?
Dunning says there are ways for farmers to irrigate their lands more efficiently and cut down on water consumption. Other agencies have held campaigns to raise public awareness about water conservation that have been effective. “MRGCD needs to do a better job of educating farmers. There are things farmers can do that conserve resources—like laser-leveling fields—stuff like that where the District could team up with other agencies to help farmers,” she says. “One of the things that has been suggested (though I haven’t looked into it yet) is maybe farmers could give up their land and let it lie fallow this year, and they could get some sort of compensation.”
Oglesby says while there are many things that can be done for future planning, right now the District is constrained by the lack of precipitation. The system is designed to provide two years of water but as the state enters the third year of drought, it is quickly running dry. “In the long term we can improve efficiency, things like lining canals,” he says. “Something that we’ve never done before is actively helping farmers to irrigate faster and help them find something to line off farm ditches.”
Roberts says there is very little the District can do since there simply isn’t enough water to maintain the system. However, he remembers how in the ’50s, the conservancy found some old wells and was able to use that to augment the supply of water. He is hopeful that they could be used again. “You’re looking at the agricultural industry in the mid-Rio Grande valley and millions of dollars lost due to this drought. People look to the conservancy, but you can only deal with what you have. When there’s no water up north you can’t manufacture it,” he says. “I’d love to see them get those wells up and running again, and possibly extend the season by a month.”
Trujillo says the District should start training farmers on how preserve the limited resources they have. A crucial improvement would be to line the acequias and ditches and keep them clear of weeds so as to maximize water flow. “I think we should start praying to the maker to see if we can get some rain. We cannot manufacture rain, I don’t care who the board members are,” he says. “There are ways to cope with a shortage of water and spread it out as much as we can while we have it. Other than that, we need to have rain and snowfall up in the mountains. It took several years to get down to this point, and it’ll take several years to get back up there.”
Would you make any changes to the way the water bank is run?
Dunning says there are a couple of ways the water bank could be improved upon. One is to reduce the administrative fee for applying, since the $100 a year applies to small and large farms alike. And she like farmers to receive a partial reimbursement of the cost if the District shuts off water service due to drought, as it did this year. “I understand and am sympathetic to people that have paid a lot of money and then don’t get water deliveries,” she says. “I don’t think they’ll get it all back, or it may not be proportionate to the amount of water they didn’t use. This year, we really tried to warn them, but it’s not a science, and we can’t predict what the weather’s going to do.”
Oglesby says the state is not allowed to store water in newer reservoirs since there’s not enough water in Elephant Butte. In years of drought, he says, the water bank should not be operating at all. “We should only be leasing water when we have enough water to go around to people who have not sold off their water rights yet,” he says. “In the beginning of each year we should make the decision of whether the bank should be operating or not. I don’t see how the water bank is ever going to be a reliable water source that people can plan on and rely on for good economic development.”
Roberts says he was on the board when today’s water bank policy was developed, and for the most part, it works well. “The water bank is important to keep agriculture alive in this valley” he says. “You don’t want to discourage anyone from trying to farm something just because someone else got rid of the water rights. But I think no policy is a blanket policy, and you really have to look at each case and figure out how you want to decipher which people you want to be able to benefit from this.”
Trujillo says the water bank has worked in the past when there’s been an abundance of water, but now the policies should be better enforced. “It’s one thing to have a water bank and water bank policies, but if you don’t enforce it, they’re useless. In the past we had enough water for all of the irrigators,” he says. “So it wasn’t really a problem to protect the water bank. But that is not the case today. We have to really conserve the water and enforce the water bank policies.”