Former legislator Hoyt Pattison said depleted water supplies have forced him to switch to dryland farming.
By Haley Rice
Editor’s note: The following are profiles of movers and shakers in the world of water — from the man who dug the first wells on the Llano Estacado to the high-profile voices in the ongoing debate about the future of our water supply.
Although each presents a different solution to the problems the region faces, all have dedicated their time, energy and knowledge to looking for an answer.
Hoyt Pattison wants to see New Mexico keep all the water it can — but that’s easier said than done. In the Southwest, water is a use-it-or-lose-it commodity.
Pattison, a New Mexico legislator from 1963 to 1984, still lives and farms within a half-mile of his family’s original homestead north of Clovis.
The first water-related issue he dealt with as a legislator was the raising of fees for fishing licenses, he said, and successive battles have only become more difficult.
“Since that day and time, the interest in water has become even more important because of the demands on the lower Rio Grande water by El Paso,” he said. “At the end of my tenure in the Legislature, El Paso was bound and determined they were going to get New Mexico water and there were laws passed to prevent them from doing that, and that’s where the regional water planning that the state has been involved in ever since came from.”
Pattison was appointed by former Gov. Gary Johnson to serve with the Interstate Stream Commission, but was recently removed from his position when newly elected Gov. Bill Richardson restructured the ISC.
While serving on the ISC, Pattison said his primary concern was the development of water plans that demonstrate New Mexico’s need for water within the state.
“The purpose of all that planning is to show other states that we have need for all the water we have in New Mexico,” he said. “They need to respect those needs.”
New Mexico concedes Texas has the right to 50 percent of the water in the Pecos river, Pattison said, per a 1988 federal ruling by the Supreme Court. More importantly, the ruling states New Mexico may not give less than the required quota of water to Texas, even in dry years.
“We cannot have a deficit,” he said. “It’s calculated in April and we have until October to make that up. The last three years have been real close, and the ISC has had to buy or lease a lot of water, and the Legislature has appropriated a lot of money, $30 (billion) to $40 billion, to acquire and retain water rights and usage and make sure we deliver what we’re supposed to, to Texas.”
Pattison said he has felt the effects of the water shortage on his own farm. What was once a primarily irrigated piece of property is now mostly dryland. He said it won’t be long before other farmers will have to do the same.
“It will gradually happen, and I believe that the people who dryland farmed before we started irrigating in the 1950s will just go back to doing it,” he said. “We can do it so much better now, because we’ve got better equipment and technology and the development of agricultural crops that can produce with less water.
“It requires a change in your type of management and you’ve got to be able to work with nature and help as much as possible by the way you farm. A lot of people get out because they go broke, and that can happen to any of us.”
Pattison said he hopes the newly restructured ISC will continue the work done during Gov. Johnson’s administration.
“The governor replaced everyone, and that’s just part of the process,” he said. “I will miss being there, but someone else can learn the ropes and learn about water, because it’s a real important subject in New Mexico.”
Tillman doesn’t mind getting his hands wet
Lee Tillman, executive director of the Eastern Plains Council of Governments, said his interest in water issues started as a simple interest in community service.
Tillman, who earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism, said he worked for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal covering federal government after college. In his work, he made contact with a government official who told Tillman he was wasting his writing talents in the newspaper business and should consider grant-writing. Eventually, Tillman listened.
“A community garden project was my first project I personally worked on, and successfully implemented,” he said. “It was a seven-acre garden that almost everyone out of a low-income neighborhood of about 10,000 could eat out of in the summer. … I went back at the end of that summer because I couldn’t resist seeing that garden. … It was so rewarding, kind of my kickoff to public service, and I’ve never forgotten it.”
Tillman said he first began hearing of projects and legislation related to the future of water supply in New Mexico in the 1960s, but at the time many municipalities were skeptical about the idea of a water shortage.
Times have changed. Tillman now helps oversee the Ute Water Pipeline project, which aims to create a pipeline bringing water from the Ute Lake Reservoir in Quay County to other counties in eastern New Mexico.
The project has been off-again and on-again since the early 1980s. But Tillman believes it is the region’s best option for ensuring water availability in coming years.
Project delays have left some in doubt of its feasibility. Paul Elders, leader of Concerned Citizens for Clean Water in Curry County, calls the pipeline a waste of precious time and money, and offers another use for the money.
“It’s a laughable thing,” he said. “It will cost $250 million and probably a heck of a lot more, and it makes no sense. Take the $250 million and buy back the (crop irrigation) circles and go back to dryland farming. Pay farmers the difference in margin they make for 10 years. This will keep the farmer whole until he can rearrange himself to where he will survive off of dry-land farming and do well. If we did that, we would have 1,000 years of water left under us under present consumption rates.”
Former State Engineer Tom Turney said eastern New Mexico will inevitably exhaust its water in the Ogallala Aquifer, and having a pipeline in place by the time the water is gone is an absolute necessity.
“It’s really important for your area that you get a long-term, dependable water supply,” he said recently. “If you could just get a pipeline in place, you will continue to use your wells as they go down, but ultimately you’ll become more and more dependent on the pipeline and you’ll end up saving some ground water.”
The Ute Water Commission has no plans to give up. Tillman said the project will eventually benefit from a growing public awareness of the area’s water issues.
“I think the general public is becoming more cognizant, obviously, because the problem is becoming more clear and pervasive,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where almost everybody understands and, of course, there’s nothing like a severe drought to ratchet up understanding about water issues.”
In spite of many delays for a Ute pipeline, Tillman said people one day will be glad the project was not abandoned.
“When you’ve got a daunting problem, it doesn’t go away just because the answer doesn’t come,” he said. “It becomes more of a problem as it gets greater and greater public attention, and when it get to the crisis stage, then we get to working on it pretty aggressively.
“We’ve been in an intensive planning process for five years now. We have a preliminary plan and we’re together as a group, pulling together and recognizing we need our region to benefit … that water is such a valuable resource.”
Citizen concerned about quality of drinking water
Paul Elders doesn’t drink the water in Curry County. He doesn’t think anyone else should either.
“I drink bottled water,” he said. “The pollution here is going to gradually get worse and worse; it can’t go any other way. If nitrates are a byproduct of cow manure, and if it washes off the field into the playas, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that nitrates are going to quantify.”
Nitrates AND pollutants Elders claims are found in dangerous quantities in Curry County’s water supply. He believes they are the cause of health problems that include Blue Baby Syndrome, a condition that attaches nitrogen to the blood instead of oxygen. It can seriously injure or kill children less than 6 months to 1 year old. Officials at the state environment department note that lifetime exposure to nitrates might increase the risk of certain types of cancers.
Elders, who heads an environmental group — Concerned Citizens for Clean Water — also works along with his wife as a freelance journalist. They settled in Curry County in 1993. He said his interest in the issue of water conservation and pollution began in 2001, when local dairy owner Vincent De Maio requested a permit to construct a dairy near Elders’ property.
“We knew we were running out of water, and we being writers, we do our research,” he said. “We started reading the state engineer’s report on ground-water pollution. The report stated that by the year 2010, the most productive areas of the Ogallala Aquifer would be dewatered in Curry County, and this really got us to wondering, ‘Why are we doing what we’re doing with water when we know we’re running out of water?’ Then we realized that dairy consumption of water is 335,000 gallons per day, per dairy, which would deplete the aquifer much faster than predicted by the state engineer.”
Aside from issues of conservation, Elders and the 700 people he says are in his group believe that Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) have significantly increased the pollution of the ground-water supply in Curry County, because nitrates are a byproduct of cow manure.
“One dairy cow produces 120 pounds of wet manure a day,” he said. “One 3,000-head dairy produces the equivalent of 90,000 human beings. That’s one dairy. We’ve got 27 in Curry County.”
Elders’ findings eventually led him to petition for a five-year moratorium on dairies in Curry County, halting further establishments from coming in until a study of the ground water could be conducted. The request failed, and this year, De Maio was awarded a dairy permit.
Curry County farmer and former state legislater Hoyt Pattison said Elders is exaggerating problems associated with dairies.
“Mr. Elders is a radical and there isn’t any doubt about that,” Pattison said. “He has teamed up with the radical environmentalists and they work on fear, instilling fear, hyping fear into the general population, completely unscientifically founded. I believe most of the people in this area probably understand that radical viewpoint and discount it accordingly.”
Elders insists his vocal opposition of the dairies is not personal or political.
“I don’t even know the dairy people,” he said. “They may be nice people. But why would I spend my own money, my own time fighting an issue if I didn’t truly believe in the issue?”
Elders said he is discouraged by what he sees as the turning of a deaf ear to his concerns. But he still believes he is right and said his group is gathering evidence for lawsuits, although he declined to say against whom.
“I say 10 to 15 years from now, they’ll be calling me a prophet in Clovis,” he said. “I need water to drink, so I’m going to fight the issue in Curry County, and I’m doing it nationwide. I’m not an optimist at all. I feel that the water issue will be around until water stops coming out of the faucets.”