New Mexico’s water rebel

by Laura Paskus


A distracted-looking businessman with thinning gray hair ducks out the back door of the Insurance Building in downtown Albuquerque. He hops into a red pickup truck, drives a few blocks, parks and strides into a bank. There, he deposits a check from a water deal. Next, he heads to a coffee shop, parking directly beneath a city “No Parking” sign.

This is Bill Turner, board member and bane of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which supplies water to the bulk of New Mexico’s irrigators through a system of ditches and canals. Since elected to the post in June 2005, Turner has accused the district of hiring unqualified engineers, shirking its duties to provide notice of meetings and improperly maintaining its ditches. He’s openly disagreed with the district’s chief engineer, attorney and other board members, and his antics have lured the public into packing more than a few of the board’s twice-monthly meetings.

During that time, other board members have censured him and accused him of misleading journalists and harassing and intimidating employees. Visitors logging on to mrgcd.com will find a lengthy diatribe from the district’s attorney, who says Turner is fighting a “war against agriculture.” Now, the district has accused him of a conflict of interest, because he runs a number of private companies that buy and sell water rights. It’s gone beyond name-calling: The district is suing in state court to kick him off the board.

That, Turner says, is “malarkey.” He insists his profession is not the problem: “I was hired to carry out the wishes of my constituents, which was to clean house over there. (That’s) what I’m doing,” he says, “and they don’t like it.”

But Turner’s profession has raised some genuine ire. As the middleman in water deals, he’s been known to peddle irrigation water to developers for $35,000 per acre-foot or more. And in 2003, he and the Canadian-based Lion’s Gate Water raised eyebrows — and hackles — by applying to the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer to buy the 372,982 acre-feet of water that evaporates off three reservoirs in the Middle Rio Grande each year.

He has the capital, he says, to divert that water, store it underground and then distribute it. He even has interested buyers, he says, including the cities of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. But the State Engineer’s Office has rejected his application; Turner says it “just continually puts obstacles in the way.” He is appealing the decision in state court, because he believes his plan is a “win-win” situation. “The return flow to the river from municipalities is about 50 percent. So by dedicating that water back to the river, you get in-stream flow, which is help for endangered species, and you also get more water in the river, which improves the farmers’ water security.”

It’s an unlikely plan, to be sure. For it to succeed, the irrigation districts currently relying on water from the three reservoirs would need to revamp their own systems, build groundwater storage systems and, he says, “use the irrigation system to recharge the aquifer.”

Whatever happens, both conservationists and agency scientists — privately, at least — are pleased that someone is shaking up the system. They may be uncomfortable with his water deals, but Turner is a welcome break from the “good ol’ boys’ ” network that has controlled irrigation water in the valley for 80 years. If you ask Turner how one gets to be a good old boy — overlooking the fact that, as a politically well-connected 67-year-old man, he may already be one — he answers with a completely straight face: “By turning your back, by doing things that may not be quite right, just to get along.” He then smiles, and takes a bite of a blueberry scone: “I don’t know how you get to be a good old boy,” he says. “I’m not a good old boy.”

The author writes from Albuquerque, New Mexico. This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

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