Disappearing Rio Grande

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Why Follow the Rio Grande

by Colin McDonald | Feb. 11, 2015

The Rio Grande is disappearing. Demand for water is growing as snow packs shrink, rain patterns shift and average temperatures rise faster than they ever have in the past 11,000 years.

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A better use for water? Day 75

William S. Carlson with one foot in a flood irrigated border of his Pecan Orchard north of Hatch, New Mexico. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

William Carlson bought his first pecan orchard in 1988. He was 37, with a degree in architecture and savings from working on offshore oil rigs around the world. 

He did not know how to farm. He had grown up in Las Vegas, New Mexico working on a ranch, which he loved and knew he would never be able to afford. But on a trip to Juarez, Mexico to celebrate a friend's upcoming marriage, Carlson saw a pecan orchard and thought it was one of the most beautiful places he had ever seen.

There happened to be an ad in the Albuquerque Journal listing an orchard outside Rincon, New Mexico. 

Carlson now has two farms with 41.6 acres of pecans split between the two. He can go two weeks without talking to anyone as he commutes between them tending to his trees. Carlson, now 63, is not married and has no children.

He loves the drive between the two orchards and seeing what all the other farmers are up to.

“This valley is blessed for agriculture,” he said. “The water truly is the lifeblood of this valley.”

When Carlson began farming, a neighbor would let Carlson use his well for irrigation. Locals liked to brag that Elephant Butte was holding back 10 years' worth of water.

“It’s amazing how fast the time goes,” Carlson said.

Now, Elephant Butte does not have enough water for even a quarter of an irrigation season. Groundwater rights are being adjudicated, meaning the state is going through the decades-long process of figuring out who does and does not have rights to pump groundwater.

The move will allow for more complicated water markets, give landowners more assurance of what they actually own and allow the state to enforce pumping restrictions to maintain aquifer levels.  

The move put an end to neighbors sharing water. 

“You don’t even ask anymore,” Carlson said. “You know what the answer is going to be.”

In wet years, Carlson can flood irrigate his pecans every two weeks with the water from the irrigation canal that runs by his property. To keep his trees producing, they need to be irrigated 13 times a year. 

Last year, he was able to irrigate once off the canal before it went dry. The rest of the water came from his wells.  

The aquifer is now dropping.  Carlson plans to pump until he uses up all of his water right, or his wells run dry. For him, this is what the water is for. 

“Me being a farmer, I have a hard time grasping that I’m using too much water to grow food,” he said. “What better use is there?”

But he knows the demand for water is growing and the issues will not go away. 

“What they say is whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting,” he said. “No truer words were ever spoken, at least in these parts … we will never solve this water issue. It will always be politicized. Someone will always want your water.” 

 Carlson plans to be dead before the groundwater rights are adjudicated. He tells people he will most likely die working in his pecan orchard. 

It is where he is happy. Even during the hottest time of the day, the shade of the trees and the water pooling underneath create a cool oasis in the middle of the desert. 

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To report on and understand the haphazard irrigation system the Rio Grande has become and the changes it is going through, Colin decided the best approach would be to travel the length of the Rio Grande by foot and small boat.

He knew it would give him a unique perspective on a river that few understand. It did require many long days of moving slowly and camping on muddy riverbanks, but Colin likes that sort of thing.

The benefit was it provided access to people who wanted to share their stories and experiences with the Rio Grande. Via Facebook and chance encounters, Colin made instant friends who opened their homes. They provided help from loaning their trucks to their cell phone contact lists to help tell the story of the Rio Grande.

The trip would not have been possible without their help, along with the dedicated assistance of David Lozano, Jason Jones and Daniel Dibona, who drove thousands of miles to get people and boats in place.


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