Water checkup: Mayor talks conservation plan

David Lansford

David Lansford

Clovis Mayor David Lansford is leading the New Mexico Ogallala Preservation & Conservation Initiative. His plan is to use federal grant money to pay area farmers to stop irrigating and switch to dryland farming.

An estimated 90 to 93 percent of water pulled from the Ogallala Aquifer — the only source of drinking water in the region — is for agricultural irrigation.

At Lansford’s urging the Clovis City Commission recently agreed to pay farmer J. L. Wall $1.8 million for water rights on property near Cannon Air Force Base. Lansford wants to expand water preservation in that same area, known to geologists as a paleochannel and thought to be one of the richest water reserves in eastern New Mexico.

What is the New Mexico Ogallala Preservation and Conservation Initiative?
The background is when we were debating whether or not to go back and review the firm annual yield study at Ute Reservoir, I was asked the question, you know, you’re not in favor of Ute Lake. You want to just deal with groundwater issues and you’re trying to disrupt the Ute Water Project.

I said no, I’m not. I said fundamentally, I support the Ute Water Project (pipeline that will bring water into Curry and Roosevelt counties) … but I’m not confident the project will develop in a timely manner.

So the question is, what are we going to do in the interim until this pipeline project is developed? A recent comment by the chief engineer was that it was going to be 20 years before this project is … built.

My conversation with area producers, irrigators, was that, hey if it takes 20 years to get that pipeline project built, there’s not going to be any water left to put in the interim pipeline project that the utility authority is talking about doing.

It’s an $80 million infrastructure project north of Cannon Air Force Base that is designed to capture irrigation water until the full pipeline is built.

Well, if we’re going to spend $80 million over 10 years before we can tap into any of that water at all, in 10 years what kind of water are we going to have left in this particular area?

And so, these kinds of discussions were going on.

Blake Prather made contact with me and we seemed to have the same concerns about water supply in the area. I’ve had some interaction with Blake in the past. I respect his intelligence. He has a really good relationship, from my standpoint, with area farmers.

He’s a voice of the ag community but he’s not an active irrigator. He worked on this 99 percent more than I did.

I’m told Prather made money off this Wall water rights deal … the $1.8 million purchase by the city?
Well, here’s how that happened.

My conversations with Blake were about what do we do to slow down irrigation? My concerns that I brought to the table were clearly Cannon Air Force Base’s future having heard it over and over and over again, that there’s only two things that will close Cannon: One is encroachments in terms of their training capabilities. Whether it be on base or at Melrose Bombing Range. The second issue is water supply.

The base has officially supported the Ute Water Project for many years. Again, I was concerned of the Trinity Report that came out. That’s really where all this started.

There was a Trinity Report that the Air Force Commission did to analyze their long-term water supply. They were analyzing their supply at Hurlburt (in Florida) and at Cannon for the AFSOC.

I got a copy of that Trinity Report … In there it said that there could be water issues at Cannon by the end of this decade.

That just raises the hair on the back of my head because I’ve been through the BRAC (base closure) process once and it’s well publicized that water supply is the number one concern at Cannon.

So what do we do in light of the slow moving development of the Ute Water Project? In light of the estimated timeline of 10 years to put in the Interim Pipeline Project and watching farmers irrigate at an astronomical rate because the price they get for sorghum crops … for the dairies is $500, $600, $700 an acre. They’re making huge amounts of money because feed prices have gone up. So the old argument that economics is going to drive irrigation away is not happening.

I asked for a meeting … I paid my own money to rent that room. About 25 or 30 farmers show up and Blake and I are there. I want to ask the farmers what can we do in this community to create a win-win situation for the farmer, for Cannon Air Force base and the long-term viability of Clovis’ economy.

From that meeting that lasted about two hours, there was conversation about conservation and compensating farmers to curtail their irrigation and convert to dryland. It was just conceptual ideas talked about. Lo and behold, after that meeting, Mr. Wall told Blake Prather he was interested in selling his water rights to the city.

Blake said this is the best water out there. I guess Mr. Wall didn’t feel like approaching me was appropriate. He knew that Blake had brokered deals in the past. So they made a deal that if the city purchased his water rights, then he would pay Blake for getting that deal done.

So the city didn’t pay Blake Prather. Mr. Wall basically felt like Blake Prather was his best avenue to sell his water.

What is this Trinity Report?
It was an engineering report commissioned by the Department of Defense to examine the water supply.

The report was issued in I believe June of 2012. It was in 2012 that I had been mayor for a few months and began being concerned about the water supply once again.

The City Commission didn’t want me on the utility authority because they wanted (former mayor) Gayla (Brumfield) on there because they felt like her relationship with our delegation in Washington was far better than mine in getting the administration to fund the Bureau of Reclamation, to fund the Ute Water Project.

I said fine. I don’t have a problem with that but I’m still concerned about water around here and I’m not confident the federal government is going to fund the Ute Water Project in a timely manner. Are we just going to sit around here and just have high hopes in light of the current circumstances going on? Or, are we going to do Plan B?

This is basically Plan B.

What’s the purpose of this conservation initiative?
The purpose is to reduce groundwater pumping in order to prolong the life of that aquifer.

I really believe that this particular initiative is, as I said to the utility authority and the county the other day … the federal government told us that they’re not going to give us any money if we’re irresponsible with our current groundwater. If we’re not good stewards.

This adds to that. It shows the federal government that we’re doing everything we can here locally to prolong our groundwater but it’s not going to be good enough.

My reading of your initial draft proposal calls for $6.2 million a year for 10 years or a total of $62 million. Where is that money going to come from?
There are multiple programs in this.

Right now … we’re basically applying for a $20 million (Agriculture Department) grant for a five-year program. The farmers that want to participate, it’s only a three-year participation for each farmer. You might have somebody start and year one through year three or year two through year four, and so on.

It’s using the EQIP Program, which means Environmental Quality Incentives Program. That is the program that pays farmers to turn off their wells … $400 an acre for qualifying farms.

It’ going to be ranked in a competitive environment. So, you may have 50 farmers fill out an application but do they have good water? Are they in an ideal location for conservation? There’s going to be ranking criteria. You’ll be able to pick those farms that are going to give you the greatest conservation benefit.

The other one is a program that has been in place in the past under USDA where farmers can become more efficient in their irrigation systems. For example, they could get a tax credit or a direct payment right here to get rid of this old sprinkler that sprays the water up … and get one that drips down and just hangs and is more efficient.

The third one is a playa lake program, which incentivizes those who own those playa lakes to plant the best grass around those lakes so that the stormwater runoff is improved and the percolation into the aquifer through the playa lake is improved … improving the ecosystem of recharge.

The fourth element is the traditional Ogallala initiative which has been in place since (Sen. Jeff) Bingaman helped get that started. I think it was six years ago, maybe seven years ago. Very few farmers participated in that because the dollar amount per acre was so low, they could make so much more money growing feed for the dairies. That program is still in place.

We see this as somewhat as a priming of the pump. If we get a  $20 million grant and people participate in the traditional Ogallala Initiative, which is just like this first one, — turn the water off and convert to dryland farming — then we estimate that a little over $5 million a year could be spent on this initiative.

That’s our estimate. Right now, that’s the best amount of money that we could hope for.

— Compiled by Projects Editor Robin Fornoff