A water empire in the desert

by Greg Hanscom

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.


This small, 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 Grande.


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 chilies.


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 water.


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 empire."





Dumping water into the desert


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.


"They're 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 could take."


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 there."


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.


Supporters said the bank would encourage farmers to conserve water - water they didn't use would be there down the road when they needed it.


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 cities.


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 Los Angeles.





More to the story


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 pay taxes.


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 doors.


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.


"I 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 give.


* "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 says.


*Greg Hanscom





Albuquerque Tribune reporter Andy Lenderman and photographer Michael P. Berman contributed to this report. © High Country News