By Haley Rice and Dave Gragg
Donald Jones has been farming 29 years, but he has had enough. He loves farming and would continue, but said he’s running out of water on his Farwell farm.
And Jones is not the only area resident with water worries.
Most experts agree all of eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle will face a serious water shortage by 2040. Some are convinced it won’t be that long.
In a presentation last year to the Clovis City Commission, Mayor David Lansford said he thinks it’s possible the region only has enough water to conduct business as usual for about 16 years. Lansford based his figures on a study conducted by a hydrologist hired by Duke Energy when the company was pursuing building a natural gas plant in Clovis.
Lansford said he knows other experts believe the water will last for another 30 to 40 years, but said the community can’t afford to ignore less optimistic figures.
“I hope it’s 30 (years of water),” he said. “But if it’s 16, I think we need to notch it up in terms of looking at some conservation measures … I feel like water is the No. 1 issue in our community and has been for a number of years.”
Why are we running out of water?
The area’s main water source, the Ogallala Aquifer, is being drained in Curry County at a rate of 206,898 acre feet per year, according to the Office of the State Engineer. Meanwhile, the aquifer only recharges itself in the region by 50,760 acre feet annually.
An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons of water.
Irrigation farmers use 96 percent of the water used in Curry County, depleting 199,264 acre feet annually, according to the state engineer. Domestic use depletes 111 acre feet a year.
Jones started farming in 1974. He worked in agricultural research and lived in California from 1971 to 1974. But eventually, his love of farming and a weariness of city life called him back to Farwell.
“I liked the work,” he said. “I was doing research and development, but I did not like California and I did not like living in San Francisco Bay. That was back then and there were a lot of people even then. It would take you 45 minutes to go 15 miles, and it’s probably worse than that now.”
Jones said when he started farming his 1,500 acres southeast of Farwell, his well had plenty of water. But now, a well that once produced 800 gallons of water per minute is down to 150 gallons a minute, driving up the cost of powering the well, which is pumped using natural gas.
Water cost was the main reason he stopped growing corn in 1993 and switched to cotton, which requires considerably less water.
Last year, Jones, 61, took a job as a crop insurance adjuster.
“I enjoyed the farming, but I don’t enjoy it when your expenses come back more than the money you get back out of it. That’s not fun,” he said.
“You’ve got to provide for your family and if you can’t do it one way, you’ve got to start another way. I’m not just real young to be starting something new, but you’ve got to do it.”
Jones’ daughter and son-in-law are also getting out of farming. Unable to make a living off of the water-starved land in Parmer County, they packed up and moved to Tucson, Ariz., late last year. The Jones’ son-in-law is planning a new career as a chef.
Donald Jones, who said he’s growing about seven acres of sweet corn this spring, hates to see farming abandoned as a way of life. But he believes many families eventually will be forced to seek more profitable employment. The growing lack of water is one of the main reasons.
“In ’74, you could put seed out there … and you could make a profit because it didn’t cost that much for fertilizer and you could put lots of water on it,” he said.
Now, area farmers are becoming more reliant on help from above.
“Their favorite channel on TV is The Weather Channel,” said Vicki Jones, Donald’s wife. “They’re always looking to see ‘Well, are we going to get some rain?’ I think in the back of their mind they’re worried about the water and checking up on their wells and making sure they use water efficiently. I think they’re real aware of it, even if they don’t want to admit it.”
Since the region averages less than 20 inches of moisture per year, farmers have plenty to worry about.
State leaders have long been concerned about New Mexico’s future water supply, as evidenced by their authorization to build Ute Reservoir near Logan nearly half a century ago, said Lee Tillman, executive director of the Eastern Plains Council of Governments.
“They provided funding for construction as a future water supply for eastern New Mexico because of the clear recognition, even in the late ’50s, that eventually we would have a ground water crisis,” he said. “If you were observant, you would say, ‘Why are we building this reservoir?’”
Tillman first realized the water would not last forever while sitting in a geology class at Eastern New Mexico University in 1967.
“A geology professor said, ‘What we need to realize is that this is a vast underground resource that is being depleted through ground-water mining, and it’s only a matter of time before the aquifer will be diminished to the point that it can’t be used for irrigated agriculture, and sometime beyond that, there will be places that dry up entirely,’” Tillman said.
“He said we would run out of water within 30 years. Here we are, a little over 30 years later, and we haven’t run out of water, but we’ve pumped the water down by at least half in virtually all areas.”
New Mexico statutes specify that water must be put to “beneficial use,” but they place no priority on one use over another.
Paul Saavedra of the State Engineer’s office said water rights for agriculture are limited to the use of 3 acre feet of water annually on every one acre of land.
Saavedra said it may not be long before domestic water use is also limited, or at least monitored.
“Throughout the state, non-irrigation, big users including dairies, municipal and industrial, are metered,” Saavedra said. “Domestic wells are not metered, except if it is a multiple household use or in conjunction with a non-household operation.
“Putting meters on agricultural and domestic wells statewide is inevitable, but that’s a very general statement. It would be safe to say that in the next seven or eight years, metering will be required. Obviously, the future holds that you’re going to have to put a meter on that well whatever its use is.”