Hatch Valley Farms Fight For Water, Survival
March 25, 2013

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Jason Franzoy is a fourth-generation farmer in the Hatch Valley of New Mexico. His future as a farmer is uncertain if current drought conditions continue.
HATCH, N.M. — Lately there's nothing grand about the Rio Grande. Persistent drought across the Southwest has sucked the river dry.

Light snowfall and little rain mean the region must brace itself for more of the same this year. It's a wake-up call for city folk and farmers alike that water is increasingly scarce.

The Rio Grande cuts through the entire state of New Mexico where the drought has lawmakers, like state Senator Peter Wirth, in a panic.

"Well, it's flat out scary," he said.

Wirth is the chairman of the Senate Conservation Committee.

"What's different is the magnitude of what we're facing," he said. "We're seeing a situation where there's just not water in the river and our aquifers are dwindling."

When there's no water in the river, thirsty mouths look underground. New Mexico sits above at least 30 subterranean water sources. Each is different. Some are large, some are small, some are deep and others are shallow. A few are endangered. Experts say it's difficult to predict how long we can subsist on this underground water. What's more is no one knows how long the drought will last.

Phillip King, a professor of civil engineering at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, likes to offer his students a helpful analogy.

"Think of the surface water as your checking account and the ground water as your savings account," he said.

Drought is like unemployment. When someone is jobless he or she will likely rely on a savings account. That person doesn't know when he or she will get a job, and one can only survive off a savings account for so long. And like groundwater sources, some savings are smaller than others.

In New Mexico's Hatch Valley, a field hand in a straw hat shovels sand out of an empty irrigation canal. His skin is like the earth, brown and parched. Here the drought threatens the state's most beloved crop: chile.

Jason Franzoy, a fourth-generation farmer in Hatch, is worried. The savings account beneath his feet is running dry.

"Average well depth is probably about 60 feet deep. Then you hit clay and that's it," he said.

In the past decade Franzoy has relied on both river water and ground water to feed his chile and onion fields. But in the last two years he’s had to almost exclusively rely on ground water. The fuel he uses to pump the water from beneath the surface can get expensive. The quality is also poor. For Hatch farmers like him, two or three more years like this could mean a death sentence.

"It's getting harder and harder," he said. "In my opinion it's getting worse and worse."

Less than a 100 miles south of Hatch, across the state line, Texans are also thirsty. The two irrigation districts on either side of the state border have bickered over water for years. So in 2008 they made a deal they felt evenly distributes water under the current drought. But then New Mexico’s Attorney General, Gary King, jumped in to say their agreement was unfair to his state.

“We’re basically arguing that the division of water by the two irrigation districts is inappropriate,” King said.

King filed suit to terminate the agreement. That prompted the State of Texas sue back in the U.S. Supreme Court, accusing New Mexico of consuming excessive water. Pat Gordon is an attorney representing the State of Texas.

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
A field worker shovels sand out of an irrigation canal in Hatch, New Mexico.

"Well the consequences are the farmers can't grow crops," Gordon said. "There's furloughed fields. Most of the farmers in Texas do not have the ability to do underground pumping because the water in Texas is brackish."

The high court has yet to decide if they’ll take the case. But if they do and if Texas prevails, farmers in southern New Mexico say that would spell disaster.

"The entire Valley will die if we cannot draw on that savings account during this drought," said Greg Daviet, a pecan farmer outside Las Cruces.

Daviet's 50-year-old pecan trees sit on one of the deepest aquifers in the southern valley. But he says a victory by Texas could prevent him from pumping water. He farms on land his great-grandfather sowed a century ago. It's a lifestyle he’d hate to give up.

"I like that tie to family and that tie to land," he said. "It's not the most prestigious of jobs, is not the most glamorous, and it's certainly not the highest paying, but I enjoy going to work everyday and that's worth quite a lot."

With all the uncertainly that comes with drought, one thing is clear, the legal labyrinth will ultimately spill more dollars than it will ever save water.

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