New Mexico’s water rebel

  • WES NAMAN

 
  • Name: Bill Turner
  • Fond Childhood Memory: Listening to the Lone Ranger radio show: “Good will prevail.”
  • Coffee or Tea: Coffee, black, in a to-go cup with a few cubes of ice
  • Resume Excerpts: Firewall riveter for Navy S2F submarine-hunter aircraft (1958); Peace Corps volunteer and geologist in Cyprus (1963-1964); New Mexico natural resources trustee (1995-2003); trustee of more than five different private companies related to water rights,environmental projects or hydrology (present). Elected to board of directors, Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (2005 to present).
  • Thoughts on the District: “The (district) will bend and break the law any chance they get. They won’t go out of their way to do it, but they have a definite agenda. If the law gets in the way of that agenda, they get around it.”


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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...