« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Groundwater without borders, detention for profit and a new generation of farms

HCN.org news in brief.


There are signs the federal government may be moving away from its reliance on private incarceration: In mid-August, the Justice Department announced it would phase out its contracts with private prisons, and the Department of Homeland Security is studying whether to discontinue its use of private prisons to hold immigrant detainees. But in the West, much of the private immigration detention apparatus could remain intact. The new rules are likely to apply only to contracts between the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and private prison companies, not the agreements with local governments. And there’s incentive for counties to keep those contracts intact: In southern New Mexico’s Doña Ana County, which agreed to house detainees on behalf of the federal government, 270 of the 846 beds in the local jail are designated for immigrants. In exchange, the county receives $62 per day, or a little over $6 million per year if all the beds are used. For the DHS decision to have impact, activists say, it would also have to be coupled with broader policy changes that reduce the number of people sent to jail for immigration offenses.
-Sarah Tory

An immigrant detainee holds his daughter during a family visit at the Adelanto Detention Facility, managed by GEO Group, a private company in Adelanto, California.
John Moore/Getty Images

An unknown number of aquifers dot the border along the U.S. and Mexico, groundwater both sides use for agriculture, irrigation and cities. Yet neither country knows exactly how those aquifers are managed — or how much border communities need them. For a decade, researchers have attempted to study transboundary aquifers, but the effort stalled from lack of information and funding. This year, studies are wrapping up on two major water systems: the San Pedro and Santa Cruz aquifers along the Arizona-Sonora border. The research affords a more unified picture of the groundwater systems, the first step toward collaborative management of the shared aquifers.
-Lyndsey Gilpin 

The Upper Santa Cruz and Upper San Pedro water basins, important to both the U.S. and Mexico.
University of Arizona


6: Percent of American farmers who are younger than 35. The National Young Farmers Coalition is pushing Congress and state legislatures, including New Mexico’s, to forgive farmers’ student loans to entice more young graduates to work in agriculture, where a new farm might only make $2,000 a year. -Lyndsey Gilpin 

Save Our Soil
In southern Colorado, a small potato farm is using a blend of 16 different vegetables, legumes and grasses as cover crops to create nutrient-rich soil and use about two-thirds less water. The practice lessened the effects of a multi-year drought that shrank the region’s water table and dried up wells. More farmers there are adopting the practice, and it’s a model that, according to researchers, could work for bigger operations as well.
-Leah Todd

Ellaree Rockey, 10, steps down from the tractor she just drove across her family’s potato farm, where an innovative use of cover crops has decreased need for irrigating and increased the bottom line.
Leah Todd/Solutions Journalism Network

$576:  Tax bill for one New Mexico property when it was classified as agricultural land

$3,000: Amount that same property was taxed once it lost its ag designation

In New Mexico, some farmers are struggling to hold onto fields that they’ve left idle amid a severe drought a decade ago. State tax law makes idling land an expensive proposition: Active agricultural lands get a tax subsidy, but now the state is cracking down on farms that have sat fallow for many years. The result for many landowners has been a sudden spike in taxes, sometimes as much as 143-fold. In 2015, a report concluded that offering tax incentives for preserving open space — not just active farms — could lead to more sustainable agriculture and prevent the kind of tax crisis facing struggling New Mexican farmers.
-J.R. Logan/The Taos News

Protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline began in April with a few members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who are concerned that the 1,200-mile pipeline slated to cross the Missouri River could contaminate their drinking water and harm sacred sites. But as the protests have spread, the motivations have also become more diverse, rallying environmentalists fighting fossil fuels and communities across the West around the causes of tribal sovereignty and fighting corporate greed. In September, the Obama administration paused construction of the pipeline pending review. A fast resolution is unlikely. -

Amy Sisk and Leigh Patterson/Inside Energy

You say

Suzanne Walther: “Halted. For now. It is definitely not over for good. They need more and continued support from all of us.”

Bruce Berryhill: “North Dakota didn’t allow the pipeline to cross the river upstream from the capital because it might leak and pollute their drinking water. But it’s fine if it pollutes the Gulf of Mexico.” 

Mark A. York: “Water is a false cause. This is a circus and it’s all about the show.”