Water War Simmers Over Control of New Mexico’s Largest Lake
Fisherman Lee Weeks doesn’t have a lot to worry about. His life revolves around catfish, bluegill and bass.
But his tanned face ripples with fury when he’s asked about a congressional proposal to transfer New Mexico’s largest lake--and millions of acres throughout the West--to private groups of farmers.
“Now see, that’s the kind of thing that gets me angry,” Weeks says.
“They want to turn this lake over to some guy who don’t live here so he can flood his fields. They want to suck our lake dry.”
About 55 miles south, Mesilla pecan farmer John Clayshulte is trying to figure out whether nuts harvested from his 100-acre farm will cover this year’s water bill.
“It’s gonna cost me about $18,000 to water these trees,” he says. “That’s not right.”
The two men are involved in a water war being waged from Hawaii to Montana, in courts and in Congress.
The debate dates back to the early 1900s, when farmers trying to settle the West found little rain and lots of dry dirt. With the help of the federal government, they pooled their resources to build dams, irrigation ditches and canals.
These days, farmers who work that once-arid land and ranchers growing feed for their cattle say they and their predecessors have paid off the irrigation projects and they’d like to own them.
In New Mexico, Clayshulte is one of about 7,000 members of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. They, along with the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, say they have bought Elephant Butte Dam, surrounding lands, the irrigation mechanics and the 2.2 million acre-feet of water that is the largest and most popular state park in New Mexico.
“We’ve been making our payments all along. Now we’ve made the final payment and we want the title,” Clayshulte says. “That area brings in a lot of money, and we’d like a small part of it.”
Backing them is Rep. Joe Skeen (R-N.M.), who in November introduced a bill that would force the government to turn over property to irrigation districts where federal water projects have been paid off.
“The government agreed that when they paid off the project, they would maintain authority over the water. That time has come,” Skeen says.
In addition, Skeen says it is imperative to get the federal government out of the state water business.
“Water is a precious commodity, and it’s a state’s right to control commodities. Every other state in the U.S. has that right, so why not the 11 or 12 Rocky Mountain-western states?” he says.
But the federal government contends that the 90-year-old Elephant Butte project on the Rio Grande cost $42 million, and that the farmers have paid only $10.1 million. For that contribution, the federal government in January gave the farmers a small portion of the project--canals, ditches and several irrigation-related structures.
The farmers say that wasn’t nearly enough. They’ve taken the case to court, where it is being mediated, and are supporting Skeen’s legislation.
If the farmers are successful, the change in ownership would have implications not just for this state park, but for other reclamation projects where districts have paid off their debts.
“Eight-and-a-half million acres in the West could be affected,” says Mary Cook, realty specialist in the federal Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Region in Salt Lake City.
Much of that has slowly shifted from being simple irrigation projects to also being fishing, boating and recreational sites--like central New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Dam--that attract flocks of tourists each year.
Linda Ortega sells bait, cold soda and sun block from a small store on the Elephant Butte Dam Site Marina. On the wall is a picture of her in 1955, when she was 10. It shows the 62-pound girl hoisting a 65-pound catfish.
“My daddy caught that,” Ortega says. “I’ve been having good times at this lake my whole life.”
That’s why she opposes Skeen’s proposal.
“The state park guys, they’re our buddies,” Ortega says. “They take good care of the grounds, police the area, keep it real clean.”
Glancing across the water at the area’s namesake elephant-shaped island, she adds: “They even take care of the goats on the butte. Do you think some rancher would take care of those goats?”
Because he proposed the transfer, Skeen has become something of a villain in the area. The congressman “looks at all this water and all he sees is something for his cows to drink. He doesn’t care at all about recreation,” says Don Brady, an Elephant Butte resident.
But Skeen, a Picacho sheep rancher who receives no water from the project, says his opponents were misled by some state officials who made “a deliberate attempt to skew the process.” He says he is certain that the lake will remain a public recreation area if the transfer goes through.
Gov. Gary Johnson, who earlier this year released a letter opposing the transfer, now says he supports it if the lake can remain open to the public.
“I’m amenable to however it works out, just so long as you and I can go out there and get a suntan or water ski or whatever we want,” the Republican governor says.
Helen Cole of Los Lunas, dabbling her toes in the water during a recent weekend holiday to the lake, says she also wants the lake to remain open to the public.
Her daughter Marinda, who is almost 2, plays in the sand. This, says Cole, is a public treasure. No matter who controls it, she hopes that her family can continue to vacation here.
“This kind of reminds you of the ocean in the middle of the desert. It needs to belong to all the people,” she says.