Nov 12, 2019

Groundwater concerns underpin New Mexico Mesilla Valley farming

Groundwater concerns underpin Mesilla Valley farming
Kent Paterson/Special to the Digie Zone Network
La Semilla Center's year-round farming. La Semilla courtesy photo.
MESILLA VALLEY, NEW MEXICO - Every year, fresh produce from southern New Mexico's Mesilla Valley is sold at the Farmers Market at Ardovino's Desert Crossing in Sunland Park.  Zach Cook and George Pouy are two of the longtime vendors that offer their harvest to borderlanders. Though the men differ in age and background, one thing they have in common is that both draw water from New Mexico's Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID), the Las Cruces-based agency which supplies irrigation surface water from the Rio Grande and monitors water usage from the aquifers below the ground.
"We've been using our well a lot more than having irrigation water," said Cook, a lifelong family farmer who farms corn, peaches, pecans, squash and cotton in La Mesa, New Mexico, a small Mesilla Valley community on Highway 28 that leads to Las Cruces. "If it grows around here, we grow it," he added. But in an interview earlier this harvest season, Cook said reliance on groundwater is a pricey endeavor, costing him $15,000 last year alone. 
A retired accountant who operates a seven-acre farm in the small valley community of Chamberino, Pouy produces about six cuttings a year of alfalfa, vegetables, meat and eggs. He has a greenhouse, hoop house and grows lettuce, spinach and other cold season crops that make his operation a year-round endeavor. "I'll have greens all winter," he said. "So I'm living the dream. Sometimes it's a nightmare, though," he said, cracking a smile.
"I guess you can technically call me retired," Pouy quipped.  "But what am I going to do, sit around on my ass and watch television?" Pouy has two wells: a residential one and another for commercial purposes that draws water from a depth of about 200 feet.
When he started farming back in 2009, Pouy found that Rio Grande water was sufficient. "I didn't have a well and there was enough water for Sudan Grass and cotton," he recalled. But that situation didn't last long as drought descended on the land, and in 2012 he spent more than $33,000 putting in the commercial well.
According to Pouy's records, he spent $518.00 last year on the well, basically in electric bills to El Paso Electric Company for the cost of pumping the water out of the ground. Farmers with greater acreage than Pouy, like Cook or those bigger than him, spend far more.
In addition, Pouy said he pays an annual fee of $600.00 to EBID and is required to file quarterly reports of his well water meterings to the agency that manages Rio Grande water deliveries to farmers in the Hatch and Mesilla Valleys.
Although a decent northern snowpack that melted into the Rio Grande allowed Elephant Butte Reservoir (where water for delivery to users south of the huge manmade lake is stored) to fill halfway this year and permitted EBID to distribute 14 inches to its users, as opposed to less in recent years of drought, Pouy discovered that this allocation wasn't enough. The Anthony grower didn't have precise numbers at hand yet for the growing year, but he calculated that "we used a lot more groundwater than EBID" in 2019. 
In the aftermath of a dud monsoon year and with the specter of drought once again hovering over the long term viability of Rio Grande water supplies for farmers, the economic and environmental issues of groundwater usage for agriculture loom ever larger in New Mexico.
"As we go through the drought years, agriculturalists really rely on groundwater." said Holly Brause, research scientist at New Mexico State University's Water Resources Research Institute. "It's affected farms, because now when they have to rely on groundwater, it's more expensive for them to pump."
Brause is part of a relatively new academic field known as social hydrology, a discipline that contemplates "human and environmental systems as one system." She's also a member of an Oregon farm family that practices organic agriculture. Currently, the University of New Mexico doctoral student is researching farming values and how they fit into water consumption and crop choice, as well as looking at the crucial matter of stakeholder engagement in aquifer management.
"A lot of farms in the area are thinking about how they can conserve water, and they're interested in using less chemicals," the UNM doctoral candidate said. "Even if they aren't interested in organics, they're thinking about the impact on the environment, the chemical use, water use."
As with surface water, groundwater availability is not the only factor affecting New Mexico farms. Quality, too, figures as a crucial component of the water portfolio.
"Salty" is how Krysten Aguilar, co-executive director of the Anthony-based La Semilla Food Center describes the well water at the non-profit organization's small Mesilla Valley farm.  Plunging to a depth of approximately 330 feet, La Semilla's well sucks out water with a high salinity content- a not uncommon occurrence in the valley- which negatively affects yields.
But La Semilla's leaders view water consumption as one piece of an overall farming strategy and philosophy that includes soil health, appropriate plant choice and organic methods.
"We've been doing a lot of things to attract native pollinators," said La Semilla's other executive co-director and founder, Cristina Dominguez Eshelman. By incorporating native Chihuahuan desert plants on the farm, more beneficial insects that prey on pests are attracted to the farm, she said.
Now 10 years old, La Semilla does year-round farming, producing greens in the winter. "We've been doing continuous vegetable production for the last five years," Dominguez Eshelman added. To aid in growing, the Mesilla Valley farm uses row covers and sometimes a hoop house.
La Semilla's farming practices are guided by the concept of agroecology. Concretely, that means "landscape approach, crop diversity, and rotation, integrating crops and livestock (manure) and cover crops," according to the organization. Viewing actual farming as just one part of the food system, La Semilla is also involved in community education, "edible" education, food policy advocacy and much more.
"La Semilla Community Farm provides opportunities to grow farmers and support local farms in historically underserved areas, but also supports a generation of producers that are adapting innovative practices and system, re-defining what a healthy farm in the Chihuahuan desert looks like," the Mesilla Valley food center notes.
But hanging over the futures of Mesilla Valley farmers is a pending Supreme Court case that pits Texas against New Mexico over Rio Grande water and the alleged over pumping of groundwater in the Mesilla Valley. The conflict is rooted in decades of differences stemming from the geographic flow of the river and the hydrology surrounding it; national and international water sharing compacts; environmental impacts from crop choices; the sweeping influence of the global agricultural market and, increasingly, climate change.
"We don't get enough of it," Cook said of the irrigation water supply and controversies with Texas downriver. "We need it to rain, and it would be nice for EBID to get us more water and if we didn't have to send more water down to Texas because of that lovely agreement."
For La Semilla's Krysten Aguilar, the lawsuit is "concerning" but a somewhat distant matter for the moment. "I know it's there and it's crazy but it's not here yet," in the same way as problems like climate change, she said.
In her conversations with farmers, Brause has found concern about the lawsuit's possible consequences, but more immediate worries including the performance of markets, weather, prices, disease, and labor availability.  "Every day there is something that is imminent that can end their business," she said.
Author-journalist Kent Paterson is a regular contributor to the Digie Zone Network.
Editor's note: This story is the first in a series on water issues in the Paso del Norte borderland of southern New Mexico, El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. The series is made possible in part by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.  

Oct 25, 2019

Narco Violence: Mexico's October Crises

Mexico's October Crises
Photo de AFP
Kent Paterson/Digie Zone Network
On both sides of the border media misinformation, contradictory reports and stunning declarations accompanied the recent, bloody episode in northern Mexico involving imprisoned drug kingpin Joaquin El Chapo Guzman's son and government security forces.
For instance, Santa Fe radio personality Richard Eedes informed his listeners of jolting, terrifying events unfolding south of the border on Friday, October 18. In a solemn tone, the KTRC broadcaster described violent mayhem he claimed overwhelmed Mexico City as the week drew to a close, advising attentive ears that reconsideration might be in store for that trip to our southern neighbor.
But Eedes' time and geography were completely wrong: the upheaval he spoke about occurred not in Mexico City on Friday but hundreds of miles to the north in the city of Culiacan on Thursday, October 17. The capital of the Pacific coastal state of Sinaloa, Culiacan is the cradle of Mexico's various drug and organized crime organizations. In fact, illegal drug cultivation and trafficking, intimately linked to the voracious U.S. market, has thrived in Sinaloa for generations. So has the violence associated with it, fanned by access to the easy and bountiful U.S. arms market. 
To put Sinaloa's violence in historical context, a few words from a 2004 article that appeared in the now-defunct New Mexico State University publication Frontera NorteSur (I was editor there from 2005 to 2016):
"In Sinaloa state, the birthplace of important border cartels, the press has reported close to 16,000 murders from 1980 to July 2002. During the first three weeks of 2004 alone, 45 murders were registered in the conflictive state, a place where rival bands of gunmen kill for control of the drug-producing Sierra. Analysts who 10 years ago once warned about the 'Colombianization' of Mexico now appear to have been not far off the mark."
Earlier, in the 1970s, the Mexican military conducted a sweeping, anti-drug campaign in Sinaloa that resulted in the displacement of  thousands and, according to some analysts, led to the formation of the first large-scale drug organization in the city of Guadalajara.
Nearly half a century later, Sinaloa is still a battlefield. What's more, labs that manufacture synthetic drugs like meth are today's truly profitable commodities as opposed to the old moneymakers of marijuana and opium poppies.
Sinaloa's narco-economy is embedded and dynamic enough to change with the times and regenerate the underworld organizations who maintain "shadow" governments that, as was witnessed October 17 when 40 members of Mexico's new National Guard and army troops reportedly attempted to arrest Ovidio "The Mouse" Guzman, openly flex their naked power when they so desire.  
The detention attempt horribly backfired, resulting in hours of violent attacks by pro-Guzman family gunmen who burned vehicles, blockaded streets and freed dozens of prisoners from a local jail.
Quickly surrounded by a superior force of gunmen, an impressive rapid deployment force that had the earmarks of a well-trained military elite, the Mexican federales let Guzman go free and the violence came to an end.  Some media accounts reported that Ovidio's brother, Ivan Guzman, was also detained but freed.   
The narco uprising paralyzed Culiacan, forcing the suspension of classes, the cancellation of a professional soccer match (Dorados vs. Atlante) and the disruption of normal business. 
According to numbers later reported by the Sinaloa Secretariat of Public Safety and published by the Reforma news service, 14 people were killed in Culiacan, including four innocent persons who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Twenty-one others were injured. The state casualty numbers differ from the eight dead reported by the federal government.
Culiacan unleashed a barrage of criticism directed at the nearly one-year-old presidency of reform-minded Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), posing serious questions about the Mexican leader's power vis-a-vis the underworld and his ability to restore peace and order, as he pledged during the 2018 presidential campaign.    
Poet Javier Sicilia, who led the violence victims' caravans across Mexico and the United States in 2011 and 2012 that raised the profile of Mexico's public safety and human rights crises, sharply criticized the Lopez Obrador's security and justice policies-or lack thereof- which he contended overshadow all other politically thorny matters.
"Let's forget about the (polemical) airport. Let's forget about Dos Bocas (the controversial refinery project)....The priority of the nation, and the present moment recognizes this, is peace and justice in the country," the intellectual was quoted in the Reforma news service. "Without this, everything else is broken, dead and doesn't serve anything."
Angel Avila, leader of the small opposition PRD party, acknowledged that AMLO wasn't responsible for the nation's legacy of violence but should admit that Mexico confronts a failed State and realize that his "hugs, not bullets" posture is a failure.
Alejandro Moreno, leader of the former ruling PRI party, was more measured, calling for national unity, support for the armed forces and "results from the federal government." 
In response to the critics, Lopez Obrador doubled down.
"Many people were at risk and it was decided to protect life. This isn't about massacres. The capture of a delinquent can't be worth more than the lives of people," AMLO said.
"The decision was taken to protect the citizens. That's the difference between this strategy and the ones of (previous) governments. We don't want dead people or war. The (anti-drug) strategy that was being applied converted the country into a cemetery and we no longer want that."
The Mexican president was supported by his foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, the governor-mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, and a host of political allies.
During a trip to Oaxaca Ebrard expounded on the government's Culiacan decision, insisting that the notion of "collateral damage" was not a part of the new federal administration's language or practice.
"Put another way, if an order had been given to continue the Culiacan operation, it's estimated that the number of dead, especially of the civilian population, could have surpassed 200, judging by the circumstances of the time," Ebrard was quoted by Reforma. 
Edgardo Buscaglia, a Columbia University professor and organized crime expert who's meticulously analyzed Mexico's security and human rights crises, saluted Lopez Obrador's government for having the guts to enter the "wolf's den" and go after the Guzman empire.
But in comments on Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui’s morning show the day after Culiacan, the former United Nations consultant also criticized the poor planning of the operation as well as the performance of National Prosecutor Alejandro Gertz Manero and Alfonso Durazo, AMLO's security czar, whom the scholar called "more a politician than a public security professional."
Additionally, Buscaglia gave bad grades to the new administration for failing to attack the financial networks of organized criminal organizations, the lifeblood of the underworld. Nonetheless, he supported the decision to free Guzman in light of the extreme circumstances of the botched detention.
Stunningly, the criticisms of Buscaglia and others were shared by Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval at a weekend press conference.
According to La Jornada daily, the armed forces chief admitted that the Culiacan operation was carried out in a "precipitous manner," without adequate preparation or consideration of the consequences.
Astonishingly, Cresencio said the chain of command wasn't properly informed about the operation. Nor was AMLO, according to the president himself, who told reporters at his October 22 morning press conference that it is understood in his administration that routine matters of arrests and extraditions should proceed as expected.
"I wasn't informed," AMLO continued. "They don't inform me in these cases because there is a general recommendation, a general policy that is applied. I have a lot of confidence in the Defense Secretary."
At the weekend press conference, Cresencio did not fully explain how an operation that involved the detention of two purported leaders of one of the largest criminal organizations in the world could have taken place without the sanction of superiors and a much larger task force. AMLO, however, told reporters that he thought Cresencio must have known about the operation, and probably did since there has been a team working on this matter, though he wasn't sure.
While Culiacan stands on its own as a major crisis of State, the issues at stake don’t stop at the  Sinaloa state lines. Though largely unreported in the U.S., myriad crises have erupted in different regions of Mexico during the month of October.
A sampling of bloody episodes reported in the Mexican press includes the killing of 14 police officers in Michoacan, the deaths of one soldier and 14 alleged gang gunmen in a purported Guerrero shootout, and the hanging of narco-banners in Taxco and Iguala (also in Guerrero), separately heralding more violence.
In Acapulco, three young men were executed and two city buses set ablaze, including one in broad daylight on the city's Costera main drag, which successive governments have pledged to protect, in an ongoing wave of violence linked to extortion gangs. The attacks temporarily brought public transportation in the old tourist center to a standstill.
In Michoacan, meanwhile, members of 50 indigenous communities blockaded five federal highways October 12, Mexico's Day of Indigenous Dignity, Resistance and Struggle, demanding  security in a region long besieged by organized crime. The protesters also denounced continued corruption at the official National Institute of Indigenous Peoples, according to La Jornada.
All the above and more serve as red flags that point to governmental blind spots, flaws and corruption that could well brake the Lopez Obrador government’s stated goals of peace, tranquility and justice.   
[U.S. author and journalist Kent Paterson is a contributor to the Digie Zone Network.]