Water bank policy revised for farmers

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Curtailment of their right to irrigate will never be a pleasant experience for water bank farmers, but at least now they will have a chance to choose how much uncertainty they can tolerate in the coming growing season, says Chris Sichler, San Antonio farmer and Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District board member. The MRGCD board of directors has approved a proposed change to the water bank policy to curtail the use of leased irrigation water when the river and upstream reservoirs run low.

The proposed policy will grant water bank leases to all qualified applicants, but water leases will be called back when the district hydrologist observes the water supply falling below predetermined set points, Sichler said. When run off replenishes the system, MRGCD staff will reinstate the leases immediately, instead of having to wait for the board to meet to make the changes, as is the case now.

Water bank users and others can view and comment on the proposed changes and the cut-off schedule by visiting the MRGCD web page.

The MRGCD defines the water bank as a method to transfer unused water rights, normally on land in the district that is no longer farmable, to farmland on which owners have sold the water rights. The water bank’s goal is to keep viable farm land in production.

Problems happen when there isn’t enough water to go around.

Right now, everyone — those who have sold their rights and those who haven’t — share the pain equally in times of drought. Sichler said the conservancy directors were aware of their constituents’ dissatisfaction with this policy even before the district was sued by some Los Lunas irrigators in late September.

The litigants, headed up by former MRGCD board member and farmer Janet Jarratt, complain that the conservancy should not have penalized all irrigators equally when water supply ran low in August, according to a Sept. 28 Albuquerque Journal article. Jarratt claims water bank users should be second in line to those whose land still holds valid water rights.

“We knew we needed to do something to address fairness,” Sichler said. “The water bank is a junior right.”

In water rights parlance, a senior right has priority over a junior right. District farmland that has not lost nor had its water rights sold has senior water rights compared to land with water bank leases.

The silver lining is the new curtailment schedule to take effect next March.

“Now the water bank user can check the schedule,” Sichler said. If supplies are good in March, above the cut-off point, water bank irrigators can choose to plant hay or other relatively drought-tolerant crops and then hope for summer run off to carry them through the season. Their water may be cut off while supplies fall below the cut off levels for that month, but if run off increases, either system-wide or locally, they can get in another irrigation or two. Right now, if the board decides the supply is too low, all the district water bank users get cut off for the entire season with just five-days’ notice.

“You can look at the numbers in early March. That’s when the writing will be on the wall,” Sichler said. If the supply looks good in the early spring, hay farmers can decide whether or not to and what to plant based on how much risk they want to take.

“You’re probably going to be able to get a couple of hay cuttings,” Sichler said. “You might get water once a month or more. At least they can get their hay planted and then hope for rain. We’ll always get some water in the spring, but you will have to take your chances in the summer. Alfalfa can go without water longer. There may not be enough water for chile without a well next summer.”

Sichler himself has had to depend on his supplemental well to irrigate his chile this summer because he hasn’t been able to get river water on his fields for 45 days, too long to wait in the case of chile or other row crops. But he is optimistic that the new policy will keep at least some farmers in business.

“It’s good to keep as many people in agriculture as possible,” Sichler said. “We need to keep these people operating and contributing to our economy. I support the water bank.”