Board to consider changes to water bank policy

........................................................................................................................................................................................

Proposed changes to the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s water bank policy will extend the maximum lease term to five years, but will set in place automatic cut backs in the use of leased water when the supply of water in the river and in upstream storage falls below pre-determined trigger points.

The changes will take effect in January 2013, after a period of public input and final approval by the MRGCD board of directors.

“There are a lot of changes going on, and if you are a water bank user or just interested in what happens with the water bank, you should definitely make your opinion known,” said Chris Sichler, Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District board member and San Antonio farmer.

The changes will affect about 200 to 300 irrigators out of roughly 11,000 in the whole district, or about 3,000 acres out of approximately 70,000 acres, said Tom Thorpe, MRGCD public information officer. “MRGCD ditch riders will be the front-line enforcers of the curtailments.”

The water bank is a system whereby the MRGCD leases water to farmers who want to irrigate land in the district where the water rights have been sold, he said. The water is available for lease because not all the acreage in the district is actively irrigated.

The water bank was instituted primarily for small land holders, generally hobby farmers whose water rights have been sold some time in the past and who now want to water a garden, orchard or small pasture, Thorpe said. Only a few of the water bank farms exceed 50 acres. The biggest water bank leases are on the Mechenbier and Edeal farms in Los Lunas.

Lease term extended

The current guidelines specify that water can be leased from the water bank for only one year at a time.

One proposed change would allow farmers to extend the term of the lease to a maximum of five years. Farmers would only have to pay the $100 per year administrative fee once instead of yearly, Sichler said.

Socorro water rights research consultant Suzanne Smith thinks more farmers will be able to stay in business because of the term extension. “I think it is a good idea if the board takes away the one-year lease provision. It took away the ability of farmers to borrow money to plant. Banks won’t loan on alfalfa seed, for example, with a guarantee of only one year of irrigation,” Smith said.

“Some people object to water banking because they say it’s double dipping,” Thorpe said. “They’ve sold their water rights for a lot of money, and then they get to lease back the right to irrigate for much less, about $78 per acre per year plus the single $100 administrative fee.”

“The district is trying to reduce the possibility of a lot of people selling their water rights and then expecting to get water bank leases, but the district cannot forbid people from selling their water rights,” said Yasmeen Najmi, MRGCD planner. “Water bank leases, on the other hand, are not a right, but a privilege, the opportunity to get water on the land. It’s designed for hobby farmers, but doesn’t preclude someone with 200 acres selling water rights and then leasing back the right to irrigate their land,”

Water rights can sell for about $25,000 per acre of farm land with pre-1907 water rights. These rights are given to land that was irrigated before the MRGCD was established, Smith said.

“A landowner can sell his water rights for up to $12,000 per acre foot,” she said. “You are allowed to sell 2.1 acre feet per acre, the consumptive use. It’s not as high as it was. It was so driven by the housing market and when the housing market collapsed, the value went down.”

Water rights are often sold by irrigators to land developers up and down the Rio Grande valley who are required to use existing water to supply new households. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre of land one-foot deep, about 325,851 gallons.

Water bank curtailments

Another proposed change is the way water will be supplied to water bank irrigators during shortages. The new policy calls for water to be curtailed to water bank users without having to wait for the board’s approval. And when rain replenishes supply, MRGCD staff will be able reverse the curtailment immediately.

“Curtailment will have an automatic trigger. Basically when there is not enough natural flow in the river to supply all irrigators and there is less than (to be decided) amount of water in storage, the board will no longer be required to make the decision to curtail (irrigation). It will happen according to the trigger,” Sichler said. “However, the board does have the right to adjust the parameters of the trigger at the annual meeting in January held to set water bank rates.”

The MRGCD hydrologist will develop the criteria for the trigger, Thorpe said.

“Once curtailment is in effect, if for any reason (most likely rain) there is extra water in the system, administrative staff may make the call to allow irrigation of water bank users,” Sichler said. “I think this is an especially good addition to the policy because many times when it rains, there is a lot of water for maybe a week, enough to water everybody. If the board had to make this call it would probably take too long and the water would be wasted.”

Right now, for example, rain has once again filled the irrigation canals.

“The district has been operating without supplemental water for about a month now and thanks to a little rain, I think for the most part, everybody has been getting irrigated although maybe not as quickly as we would like,” Sichler said.

Public input sought

The proposed changes to water bank policy should be on MRGCD website by the weekend, Thorpe said. The public is invited to comment on the proposal. There will be a link to the entire copy and a link to a comment form. A committee will read and discuss the viability of each suggestion.

“We are looking for input, giving the public a chance to comment on the changes, or the water bank policy itself. We want to give everyone a voice,” Thorpe said.