Faced with an inadequate supply of water needed for a crop or livestock herd, some Eddy County, N.M., farmers and ranchers are selling water they are allowed to pump out of an underground aquifer to oil and gas companies in an effort to survive a third straight year of drought.

An expanding oil fracturing industry is the anxious buyer of the supplemental well water — all they can get in a parched, dry environment where water is scarce, as are the opportunities to make a dollar off the land.

But farmers tapping the aquifer in order to sell their water has some questioning whether the practice is ethical and whether it is taking water away from other users who are struggling to get through the ongoing drought.

"Water rights go hand in hand with landowner rights in New Mexico,” says Woods Houghton, Eddy County Extension agent. “If you own the land, you own the water beneath it. But since the water comes from the same aquifer that is shared by multiple landowners, there are rules concerning how much water can be pumped, according to its intended use."

In other words, farmers have a permit to pump certain amounts of groundwater for farming/ranching purposes, while a commercial groundwater permit limits pumping to a different rate or amount.

"A farmer depends on the land to make his living,” Houghton says. “When he can't pump enough water to grow a crop and produce a profit, then he does what he has to do to pay his mortgage, his taxes and whatever it takes to support his family.”

In southeastern New Mexico, farmers largely depend on irrigation water from the Carlsbad Irrigation District, which is considered their primary water source. But most have supplemental wells to provide additional irrigation water during dry times. To use a supplemental source of water for farming requires landowners to apply for and obtain an agriculture use permit from the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.

In excessively dry years like this one, the irrigation district is unable to provide enough water for some farming operations, even when supplemental groundwater is added to the equation, leaving farmers unable to grow a successful crop.