Carrying Water for Mother Nature
Constant drought alters community farm model
Driving down Montano near Los Poblanos Open Space, passersby can see reminders of the drought strangling New Mexico. This time of year, the entrance to the popular recreation site, which houses Rio Grande Community Farm (RGCF), should be flanked with lush, knee-high alfalfa instead of the sparse, sickly crops growing in its place. The alfalfa started to take a turn for the worse nearly three weeks ago when drought conditions forced the closure of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) water bank.
In good times, MRGCD operates a water bank that leases water to farmers who pay the $100 administrative fee, the $50-per-acre irrigation fee and the $28-per-acre service charge. Until the bank closed, conservancy district personnel opened the water valves once a week and flooded the 140 acres of Albuquerque's Los Poblanos Fields, including nearly 53 acres farmed by RGCF. According to RGCF Executive Director Minor Morgan, that flooding is crucial to producing healthy crops, and the absence of flood irrigation water demonstrates the need to somehow obtain permanent water rights for the farm. “For the long-term health of these fields, there is no doubt we need permanent water rights out here, and however the city acquires those, we support them 100 percent,” said Morgan.
But Jay Evans, of Albuquerque's Open Space Division, said permanent water rights isn't an automatic solution for the problem. The city owns five farm properties, and of those, only two—Alamo Farm in the North Valley and Hubbell Oxbow Farm in the South Valley—have permanent water rights. “They are getting intermittent service every three weeks—which isn't ideal, but at least it's something to keep us going,” he said.
Evans said the city doesn't decide how much water is used for agriculture, and it must work with the rights that come with the property. Unfortunately for Los Poblanos Open Space and RGCF, the water rights associated with the property are on the water bank lease. “The conservancy has been predicting this for months and months,” Evans said. “It's not just us, anybody with that kind of deal—the water bank deal—is freaking and tweaking, trying to figure out what to do about their crops.”
The MRGCD distributes water according to a hierarchical system, and those relying on the water bank are the first to lose privileges when times are tough. Under the system, MRGCD must first deliver water to the six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos recognized by Congress as possessing “prior and paramount” water rights. That means during water shortages, these lands will receive water preferentially over all other MRGCD lands, according to distribution policy.
“This year is the first year that they cut off all water bank users,” Morgan said. “They turned off the water about two or three weeks ago, and they tell us that that could've been the last watering of the season.” There are basically three ways a farmer can obtain water rights. They can buy them outright, transfer rights from another user or lease from the water bank—when it's open for business.
Luckily not all RGCF property is on the water lease, Morgan said. The farm has 16 acres that are irrigated through a drip system connected to a well on the property. The drip system allows the farm to grow the organic vegetables, like heirloom tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant, that it sells to Albuquerque Public Schools, La Montanita Co-op and Whole Foods. In better times, the farm used the money from those sales to cover expenses, but this year, persistent drought conditions may demand other uses for the money. “Normally we grow the alfalfa we use for mulch, and this year we are gonna have to buy it, because we can't grow it ourselves,” Morgan said. “We will be lucky if we squeak through this season.”
About a mile back from the sickly alfalfa sits a two-acre community garden that's faring better than most of the surrounding land. Here colorful rows of lettuce, beets and bok choy adorn the landscape. This is where native Albuquerque resident Candice Knight spends most of her mornings. She grew up on Griegos Road—a short way from the farm—and paid the annual $40 fee to plant her row of goodies.
Like most of Los Poblanos Field, the community garden relies on the now-bankrupt MRGCD water bank for irrigation, so gardeners now have to water their crops by hand. Each week, the city trucks in water to fill the cisterns along the garden's outer edge. Knight, who doesn't mind the extra work that comes with watering by hand, said the extra labor acts as a filter to weed out the rookies. “When I was a little girl, I planted flowers across the street so that my mother could see them. So I am used to [lugging water around]. I do whatever has to be done,” Knight said. “You could complain, but what good would it do?”
Humans aren't the only ones impacted by the shuttered water bank. A quarter of all RGCF crops are typically allowed to go to seed to feed wildlife. “So when the cranes fly down here in November and December, we are in trouble. They are gonna say, 'Hey, what happened to the restaurant? There is nothing here,'” said Morgan.
The city is seeing what it can do to lease water rights from other rights holders, Evans said. The Alibi made several attempts to contact MRGCD officials for comment, but no one has responded.