Albuquerque, N.M. — "I can talk," says Subhis Shah. "But first, my wife says I need to take a coconut to the river."
The river is the Rio Grande, which flows
through a bank of greenery not far from Shah's downtown office.
Five minutes later, dressed in a suit, tie and cowboy boots, he
walks to the riverbank with a bundle wrapped in a plastic shopping
bag. He kneels and tosses fistfuls of flower petals, fruit, rice
and a coconut into the murky water, saying a few quiet words as the
gifts are swept into the current.
The offering is
a Hindu ritual Shah learned as a child in the Indian city of
Boroda, which means "the place of kings." There, his family made
offerings to the Orsang River, a monsoon-fed torrent in the winter
that dried up completely each summer, when farmers grew fruit and
vegetables in the floodway. "It will bring good luck," he explains
in his accented English.
pleasant-faced man is not the person one would expect to find at
the head of the region's most powerful water agency. But Shah is
both chief engineer and chief executive officer of the Middle Rio
Grande Conservancy District. The 74-year-old agency oversees and
collects taxes on 278,000 acres of bottomland along the middle Rio
Shah's district diverts almost 90 percent
of the water pulled from this stretch of the river, turning it into
ditches that serve about 10,000 mostly small-scale farmers who
raise alfalfa, hay and New Mexico's famous
Shah admits that two-thirds of the water
his agency diverts evaporates under the desert sun, seeps into the
ground, or leaks back into the river. But the district has resisted
water conservation. Shah and others say lining ditches and
upgrading irrigation lines is too expensive, and that the
district's wastewater feeds the cottonwood bosque and recharges the
underground aquifer from which Albuquerque draws its
But critics see something sinister behind
the district's wasteful water use. River activist Steve Harris says
Shah and some of his compatriots have "dreams of a water banking
Dumping water into
For folks in search of wasted water on
the Rio Grande, the district's gravity-fed, dirt ditches are easy
culprits. The district claims it diverts about 375,000 acre-feet of
water from the Rio Grande each year - enough to water 125,000 acres
of farmland. But even at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, the
district only had 70,000 acres in production. Today, that number is
closer to 60,000.
A study by New Mexico State
University civil engineer John Hernandez found that between 1975
and 1989, the district diverted more than eight acre-feet of water
each year for every acre of farmland, nearly three times what state
law allots. In 1995, it diverted enough water to drown every acre
of farmland more than 12 feet deep.
still using irrigation practices that were invented by the Pueblo
Indians," rails Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca. "It would be nice to
bring them into the 20th century." Baca worked as the district's
reform-minded head manager in the late 1980s. Bent on changing the
agency, he didn't last long. As Baca tells it, "One year was all I
Others say Subhis Shah, then Baca's
subordinate, convinced the district board to give Baca the boot.
"Shah is the puppeteer," says one district insider who asked not to
be named. "He has controlled that board as long as he's been
Now top man, Shah is working to turn the
district into the state's largest water broker, and that requires
it to lay claim to as much water as possible. Two years ago, Shah
announced the district planned to start a "water bank" to store
extra water in El Vado Reservoir during wet months, then release it
during dry months to water fields.
said the bank would encourage farmers to conserve water - water
they didn't use would be there down the road when they needed
But Steve Harris and other skeptics say it
would open the door for the district to sell water to cities.
Farmers pay $28 per irrigated acre per year. Albuquerque residents
pay $375 for that same acre-foot.
"So far, we
haven't leased water except to agricultural uses," says Shah, "But
we're going to see what can be done" about leasing it to
There's one hitch. The district has never
proven that it uses the 375,000 acre-feet it claims to have rights
to. It applied for a water permit back in 1936, but put off
"adjudicating," or legally binding its water rights, for 60 years.
The state looked the other way, giving the district temporary
licenses through the late 1980s.
In 1997, with a
water crisis looming and 10,000 silvery minnows dead due to
district diversions, state Engineer Tom Turney ordered the district
to square up. Since then, the district has spent $300,000 to
install meters at its four diversion dams, and it is in the process
of installing 35 more to measure the water that flows from the
ditches back into the river.
The district says it
hopes to have good data on how much water it uses in the next few
years, but until then, it is in its best interest to keep dumping
water into the desert. Water it wastes now can be conserved later,
perhaps sold to developers busily turning Albuquerque into the next
More to the
By anyone's account, the district's
resistance to change runs deep. There's a romance and depth of
history to life on the ditches. The farmers who look to the ditches
for their lifeblood are terrified of losing their water to cities
or endangered species.
"People are afraid," says
Lisa Robert, who grows alfalfa and keeps horses on her seven-acre
farm between Tomé and Los Lunas. "There's so much paranoia
that you give a little, and you lose it forever."
Robert is the first to acknowledge that the
conservancy district needs to evolve. In 1986, Robert and her
husband started the conservancy district's first member-advocacy
organization. "We realized we couldn't get information out of the
district," she says. "Nobody knew what was going on."
The Assessment Payers Association's newsletter,
called Watermark, circulates around the farms and stables of people
who either use conservancy water or live on conservancy land and
The association has a reputation for
being a watchdog group, because it prints the inside story on a
district that until recently met behind closed
Nonetheless, Robert considers herself a
big proponent of the district. Irrigators are easy scapegoats, she
says, but without the district, the middle Rio Grande wouldn't have
the lush bosque or wildlife habitat it has.
ride bareback on the ditches. I grew up on the ditches," she says.
"I know every damn bird out there. People don't know that ag lands
are the bedrooms and kitchens of this wildlife."
Farmers and environmentalists have a common
enemy in developers, she says. "There's also this lingering feeling
that (Fish and Wildlife Service biologists) don't have all the
answers on the silvery minnow. Until the science community knows
what they're talking about, irrigators are reluctant to jump in and
* "Fish vs. farmers," it just sounds good.
But it's so much more complex than that," she adds. "There are how
many, 650,000 people who live in this valley? Yet they expect
55,000 farmers to foot the whole bill for the silvery minnow?"
"The district puts more water than anyone else
into the river," agrees Subhis Shah. "People need to think what
they like to see. Do they like to see a green valley or do they
like to see Phoenix?"
There's one thing Shah and
his opponents can agree on: "The future of New Mexico is water," he
reporter Andy Lenderman and photographer Michael P. Berman
contributed to this report.