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.

Fracking operations pay a premium

Meanwhile, oil "fracking" companies are desperately in need of water. Large volumes of water are used for a drilling technique that has been around for decades. The process involves blasting huge volumes of water, fine sands and chemicals into the ground in order to free oil trapped in shale formations deep beneath the surface.

"However, farmers who opt to sell their supplemental water must temporarily, or permanently, transfer their license to a commercial status through the state streams commission,” Houghton says. “They aren't allowed to pump as much water out of the well because some of the water used for agriculture makes its way back to the aquifer, while selling the water commercially doesn't. So they are limited on how much they can pump, and that amount is much less than if they were using it to water their crops."

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New Mexico Interstate Stream Commissioner Jim Wilcox, who lives in the Carlsbad area, says a lot of farmers are selling their supplemental water this year. He says he can't blame them for trying to salvage a desperate crop year, but he warns landowners that they must apply to the state engineer to change their permit status before pumping.

Even so, there are some who are voicing concern that not everyone is following the law — pumping and selling water without the proper permits.

Houghton says at least one area farmer reports the aquifer is dropping more rapidly than in other dry years, and concern is growing in the area that the amount of water needed to replenish the aquifer may not come for many years.       

In a published report in the Carlsbad Current-Argus newspaper, another farmer, Jim Davis, says he has been legally selling supplemental water for a number of years, but claims many others are pumping and selling water illegally, without public notification or proper permits.

In the report, Davis claims some are selling up to 9-acre feet of water without the proper permit, and that it has caused a drastic drops in the aquifer without any recharge.

Some wells running dry

In addition to those reports, at least a dozen well owners in the Carlsbad area are claiming augmentation wells operated by the State Streams Commission are pumping large amounts of water out of the aquifer, forcing their wells to dry up. They are asking the commission for compensation.

The commission confirms they have pumped water out of these augmentation wells, which are designed to provide relief for farmers in drought years, but say only a few private wells have been adversely affected.

As drought conditions worsen all across New Mexico and water becomes more scarce, problems like those in Eddy County are multiplying for farmers, industry, municipal water departments and irrigation water districts. State water officials say the only hope is the annual monsoon season in New Mexico's mountain ranges, scheduled to get under way this month and potentially lasting well into August.

Houghton reports about a quarter inch of rain fell in the Carlsbad area earlier this week, but in times of severe drought, like now, every drop counts.

"We can only hope for rain at this point," he says. "In the meantime, as we look to the future, new technologies may provide some hope."

He says he has talked to researchers who are working on compressing natural gas and carbon dioxide (CO2) to a liquid form, which could be used instead of water by fracking companies. As fracking for oil expands not only in New Mexico but nationwide, such technology could eliminate the need to use water as part of the process.

"Fracking uses a lot of water," he says.

While water is scarce in New Mexico, Houghton points out that expanded oil and gas operations in Eddy and surrounding counties have been good for the local economy at a time when all the help they can get is welcome.

 

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