Sunday, September 30, 2012

Teachers, Actors, Time

Late one sunny August afternoon as I drove across campus, watching returning students wave to old friends, it was hard not to recall another August when I was one of them. 1969. I’d driven here from New York to resume my education, after two years working with kids in Harlem and driving a cab.

That first semester I took film-making classes with Orville "Bud" Wanzer, a New York City cop’s son shooting films and photographs in the desert.

I took a poetry workshop with Keith Wilson, a bearded fellow who mixed his New Mexico roots, his Korean War service, and a bit of shamanism into a unique poetic brew.

I also took a fiction-writing workshop with a charismatic young fellow from Miami. He held the class in an open area on the second floor of Corbett Center, where there were a couple of couches, a few chairs, and a decent carpet to sit on. When old Herschel Zohn staged War and Peace on campus, this young writing instructor played Andrei. Very effectively, as I recall.

He was also an athlete. Immediately we started playing tennis twice a week. He had a devastating left-handed spin serve. My memory may exaggerate this, but it feels as if he won every set at love.

We also played in a Sunday touch football game that was competitive enough that a couple of Aggie wide-receivers joined us now and then; and our softball team won campus championships. Slow-pitch. One year we signed up for the fast-pitch league too. We had no fast-pitch pitcher. So we played with our regular guy lobbing up slow ones, while we hit against guys throwing hard. Even so, we went deep into the playoffs. And had a lot of fun.

Our youthful selves grow stronger and more graceful with the years, as x-rays of our knees start looking like junkyards littered with rusted parts of unknown origin.

In 1972, I went to the New York opening of "When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?" by my old fiction instructor, Mark Medoff.

Last weekend at the Community Theatre, we saw "When you Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?" Directed by the playwright. Well-acted, and as engaging as it was forty years ago – except that this time, before the play started, they showed slides from the late 1960's and early 1970's. Some members of the audience (and cast) hadn’t been born yet. At one point a character says, sarcastically, that it might take $50 to fill up a Cadillac with gas, whereas today we all wish we could fill the tank for so little.

So now the play is also a piece of the past.

Past and present mingle more and more these days.

Before supper and the play we visit Bud Wanzer, now 81. His mind’s sharp, but he can’t move around too well. (He retired in 1984, moved up to our land on the river, built a solar-powered home, and lived alone there until a few months ago, making beautiful stained-glass pieces enjoyed mostly by his five dogs.) When I stop at Milagro’s to buy a brownie for Bud, the owner responds with a special smile when I tell him whom it’s for. He took two memorable film-making classes with Bud just before he went to ‘Nam.

We have supper with Heloise Wilson (Keith’s widow) and Grant and Tenya Price, who arrived in Las Cruces the same month I did, and immediately became my close friends. Grant, who also played in those Sunday touch football games, is wearing a very faded T-shirt commemorating the opening of the play – forty years ago, when he and David Apodaca built the set. (Another of the Sunday football players was Bill Diven, whose younger brother Bob designed the excellent set for the present production.)

I tell Heloise that twice recently, when a man learned in conversation that I knew Keith and Heloise, he grew emotional telling me how much Keith had helped and inspired him. I’ve seen similar glows on the faces of folks telling me about poetry workshops they took with Joe Somoza, ten or twenty years ago.

I marvel at the many lives these teachers and artists have affected over the years, sometimes deeply. Keith has left us. So has John Hadsell, who helped start the community theater, helped start Mark on his career, and worked with Bud to initiate and run for decades the Campus Film Society.

It’s neat to see Medoff still working creatively and mentoring other writers and actors – and that students like those I saw that day in August will study in a building named for Mark and Stephanie.

More compelling is the legacy that Mark and the others have left living in the heads and hearts of men and women who write or act better, or live better, or feel better, because of them.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 30 September. ]

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Doña Ana County's Judicial Elections

Judicial elections, low on the ballot and little publicized, will make a difference to many of our lives during the next decade or so.

Electing the three prosecutors appointed by Governor Martinez would short-change the court with regard to Family Law -- and could result in unfair criminal trials, the appearance of unfairness, and/or costly administrative headaches when these judges get disqualified. Or extra expenses on appeals.

Martinez, who came into office deriding the alleged "cronyism" of her predecessor, has appointed three cronies. Each had worked a long time with her and with District Attorney Amy Orlando, and each has experience solely or mostly in criminal cases.

A civil or criminal judge should have no close connection with (or bias toward or against) anyone in a case s/he’s hearing. A judge who has worked closely with a lawyer for many years, and still socializes with the lawyer, might be required to recuse herself from a case involving that lawyer. All three appointed judges have such a relationship with District Attorney Amy Orlando.

Watching Orlando and the three Republican judicial candidates at a recent Tea Party meeting strengthened my concern. Each judge stressed experience working with Martinez and Orlando. Body language, camaraderie, and remarks like, "We’re all concealed carry" underlined their closeness. As one of the judges said, "You’ve heard a little about everyone working for Susana Martinez."

Governor Martinez could have and should have appointed judges with more varied expertise. Her judicial appointees around the state are all, with one exception, prosecutors – and she also fired some public defenders. (Could a defendant be prosecuted by a prosecutor, judged by a prosecutor, and defended by someone appointed by a prosecutor? I think I’ll buy shares in a private prison company.)

In addition, Martinez made these appointments without regard to the court’s needs. Of the Third Judicial District’s eight judges, theoretically two each focus primarily on the Civil, Criminal, Family Law, and Juvenile Court, although it’s never quite that neat in practice. Martinez might logically have appointed judges with diverse backgrounds, to make sure someone had expertise in each area. By appointing three prosecutor pals, she gave us an overload of criminal law experts -- but no one with background in family law, complex civil litigation, or juvenile court.

Family Law requires sensitivity and insight. Experience with family law cases would surely help. Divorce and custody hearings are among the ways the court is most likely to impact the average citizen’s life. Most of us get through life without being charged with a non-traffic offense or being party to a civil case that actually goes to trial, and the majority of us are no longer juveniles. Sadly, a lot of folks get divorced – or, having been divorced, need a sensitive and experienced judge to handle emotionally charged custody disputes with a former spouse.

The Martinez trio lack family law experience.

In appointing Susan Riedel, for example, Martinez knew that the court’s need was for a family law specialist. Other applicants, including Marci Beyer (who is running against Riedel now) were more qualified. Riedel’s experience was solely in criminal law. A bipartisan nominating commission reviewed the applicants and reported. Martinez nevertheless chose her former assistant.

Despite its importance to us average citizens, Family Court usually gets the most junior judges, the ones with no choice. Applicants for judgeships often claim an interest in or commitment to whatever the court needs at that moment, but then, as they get seniority, move to the area that really interests them. I’d rather see a judge stay in family law and get good at it, not switch to criminal or civil cases the moment s/he starts learning a little about family law.

Beyer says that if elected she’ll stay in family court. Unlike her opponent, Susan Riedel, she actually knows a good deal about family law. (Riedel told the Nominating Commission that she intended to stick with family law, but it hasn’t worked out that way.) When I looked in the phone book under "Attorneys" for Mary Rosner’s name, the listing said "Rosner Family Law Center." Rosner told me she too intended to stay in family court, although she had substantial experience in other areas before specializing in family law for the past 17 years. (Her opponent, Jacinto Palomino, practiced only criminal law, almost solely as a prosecutor.) Gee, we could elect two judges, Beyer and Rosner, to do that important work who actually know something about it, care about it, and would stick with it.

In practice, each judge will sometimes have to handle all sorts of cases. Beyer, Rosner, and Darren Kugler each has a wider range of experience than the three Martinez appointees they’re running against.

If we screw up electing a state legislator, we can correct the error in two years. Screw up on the judges, and we’ll be saddled with our mistakes for a long time.


[The foregoing column appeared this morning, 16 September, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, entitled "Court Needs Better Balance, More Family Law Judges."]

There's more to say on this subject.

Notably, there's something one Martinez appointee said to the Tea Party, where perhaps she assumed she was among only committed partisans.   The Tea Party event was billed as a "candidate forum"; but to avoid confusion, Tea Party leaders invited only the candidates they agreed with, the Republicans: Amy Orlando and the three Martinez-appointed judges.

The Hon. Susan Riedel volunteered at one point that there was something more she'd like to say:.  She continued:
"My opponent is Marci Byer. You’ve probably seen a gazillion signs [unintelligble - for?] . . . Marci Bayer
I will tell you that those signs are paid for by Judge Murphy.  Her husband represents Judge Murphy in his criminal case.  That’s where the funding is coming from."

There are several things very wrong with that statement by a candidate in a judicial election -- not merely  that it is almost certainly inaccurate and that it's doubtful that Ms. Riedel believed it herself.

First of all, judicial elections are supposed to be a little more seemly.  When I asked one of the Democratic candidates about her opponent, she stated immediately that while she'd be happy to talk about her credentials, it would be inappropriate in a judicial eleciton to make negative comments about her opponent.
Ms. Riedel's comments may have amounted to defamation.  Defamation is communicating to third parties something bad about someone that purports to be factual when you either know it's false or know you haven't got a clue whether or not it's true.

I know only what I've read in the newspaper about the Murphy case.  I've no knowledge as to whether or not he committed any crime.   I've never met him or spoken with him.  But last time I checked, in our country he's innocent until proven guilty.  He is also entitled to representation by a lawyer.

Ms. Riedel does not know (nor does Ms. Beyer) whether or not Murphy has contributed even a nickel to Beyer's campaign -- although word is that he's not exactly rolling in cash these days.  Ms. Riedel knows she doesn't know.  She also knows that campaign contributions are recorded -- even if the judicial candidates don't get to see those records.  Yet she stated as fact that Murphy had supplied the money for Beyer's signage.

I telephoned Ms. Riedel to ask her about what she'd said, and that conversation was interesting too.

When I asked whether she had said that the money for Marci Beyer’s signs came from Judge Murphy, she replied carefully, "I have heard that."
"Have you said that?" I persisted.
"I have heard that," she repeated.
I asked again whether she had not only heard it but said it, to the Tea Party the other night.
"I don’t think that’s how I said that," she stated, adding, "People say" the money came from Murphy, and she indicated that she’d only said that people said it and that she didn’t know.
I asked whether there were individual "people" who had said that to whom she could steer me so that I could investigate further, and she said "No, I’d just heard that Judge Murphy was paying a lot of money for that representation."
So, I asked, such money would go to Ms. Beyer’s husband, not to the campaign?
She said she was not saying Judge Murphy had contributed to the campaign, did not believe he had, could not properly know, and could not even know who was contributing to her own campaign." She also said, then or later, that if she had left the impression she meant as a fact that Judge Murphy’s money had funded the signs, she was wrong.

When I told her I’d been at the Tea Party meeting, she took me to task a little for not having told her that initially.  (As a journalist and as a lawyer, that ain't how I interview someone.  Even if I knew that a witness was having an affair with Greta Garbo, and had videotape of them together, I'd probably start by asking if he knew who she was.  With people you don't know, you can learn a bit from how they handle questions you happen to know the answers to.  You don't start out by proudly announcing how much you actually know already.)  For the record, I'm not saying that Ms. Riedel was lying to me on the telephone.  It may be that she had spoken very carelessly at the Tea Party meeting and in the conversation with me she simply recalled inaccurately what she'd said. 

With regard to my concern that Martinez had appointed only her former co-workers in the DA's Office as judges here, she said: "I can tell you what I tell many people, that Governor Martinez appointed people who she felt could do the job. You expect a governor to appoint as judges people she knows well enough to trust."

As to the relationship with present D.A. Amy Orlando, and whether it might result in disqualifications, she referred to the fact that "Chief Judge Driggers moved me to the cirminal division of his own accord.."

When the conversation returned to the Tea Party event, she said that my quote of her words (that Judge Murphy was the source for all those Beyer signs around town) was "Not what I said." She said that she said "I have heard, and you may hear, that . . ."  I told her that with all due respect I had to disagree, and that her memory might be flawed, and that her statement to the Tea Party had not been as careful as her statement on the phone to me.  She then said something like "What was heard might have been different." Then she said that if she had "given the impression" that Murphy was paying for the signs, "I was wrong to give that impression."

She also said that she had demonstrated her abilities as a judge during her time on the bench so far, and that I should ask counsel who’ve appeared before her about her fairness and about her competence in the family law area. I told her that while that was a good idea, there were some limits on the time I could put into a single column. I reiterated that the column is opinion, not a news report – and that it would make clear I wasn’t discussing their specific records on the bench, because I didn’t know much one way or the other.

She asked what my political views were. I said they depended on the issue but tended to be more toward the progressive than toward the Tea Party end of the spectrum, and that I was probably a registered Democrat at this point but had in the past been registered as an Independent. I also told her that while my column expressed my point of view, and wasn’t a news story, I tried always to be fair, and she said she’d hold me to "fair"and that "I hold myself to fair every day on the bench."

I also asked Jacinto Palomino about Martinez’s appointment of three of her former assistants. He replied, "We worked for Susana 14-15 years, so she knew our work ethic, our work product, and our legal skills and knowledge. Why wouldn’t she appoint people she knew, thinking ‘I know their judicial temperament.’ So it makes sense, as opposed to a stranger."

He also cited specific cases that he felt showed his legal skills and knowledge.  These included one in which he had successfully appealed a decision that 9-1-1 calls were hearsay -- gaining a decision that those could be played as evidence without requiring the caller to appear and verify them. 

He added that "I have one of the lowest recusal/excusal rates" here, which shows one, that I’m fair and impartial and, two, that the defense attorneys feel they’ll get a fair shake from Jacinto Palomino."  He did confirm that his experience was solely in criminal law (as did Ms. Riedel as to hers), but noted that he had represented defendants in some court-martial cases with JAG.

I spoke to some defense attorneys who stated, almost in the same words, that (1) he was a very nice guy and (2) he wasn’t the smartest judge they’d seen here. One also opined that he "tries to be fair." However, I can’t claim to have done an extensive survey.  Not having appeared before him or watched him conduct a trial, I can have no opinion.

Then there's Amy Orlando.  She said several things about her opponent, Mark D'Antonio.  That election, of course, is not a judicial election, so some of the ethical constraints don't apply; and when she said somethinig that seemed highly unlikely (that he'd already offered jobs to 14 local attorneys, 10 of them defense attorneys) she carefully prefaced it (as Ms. Riedel did not) with "I have heard" or "People have told me."   She also tried to frighten the people by describing very unpleasant people she alleged (more or less accurately, I presume) he had represented.   There too she added the disclaimer that criminal defendants had a right to a lawyer; but her obvious hope was that the good folks at the meeting would go home frightened that electing D'Antonioo would put all sorts of horrible people on the streets.

Her main point seemed to be that defense attorneys shouldn't be prosecutors.  Mark D'Antonio has been a U.S. Attorney (a federal prosecutor), and had been an FBI agent before that.  Thus he has prosecutorial experience.  I would imagine that his range of experience would enable him to do a superior job prosecuting criminal cases for us.   Who better to negotiate with a defense lawyer or see through a defendant's claim of innocence than a defense attorney who's seen the proceedings from the opposite chair?  Who better to know which prosecutorial tactics are dead losers than a man who has had to parry them?

Further, if you believe -- as many do -- that the Martinez-Orlando era has been a sad one for the district attorney's office, and you hope to present an inviting alternative, who better than a man who's not only prosecuted and defended but has been an FBI agent as well?   That should enable him to prosecute all the more effectively; and he may have finer judgment about when justice would be better served by compromise and when it requires whole-hearted prosecution seeking a maximum sentence.  A district attorney has a duty not merely to seek the highest possible conviction rate but to serve the public, a duty that may require a more nuanced mind than Ms. Orlando's.

After the candidates spoke, Harvey Anderson got up and introduced himself as the person who'd put the Confederate flag on the float this summer.  Somewhat startlingly, the place erupted in applause.  Orlando appeared to share the enthusiasm.  (Palomino, by contrast, seemed somewhat uncomfortable, as most any normal citizen would be in the 21st Century.)  Maybe she did so sincerely (and lacks a certain sensitivity, even decency, that I would hope for in a public prosecutor).  Maybe just she did so for political reasons.  One might reasonably say, well, she was at their meeting and seeking their help getting elected, so what's a little hypocrisy among friends?  I can't say that.  Racism is something I feel I have to speak up about, even when it might cost me a friend or a beating.  

Maybe it's not fair to expect Ms. Orlando to speak up on a subject like that.  However, it is fair to think Ms. Orlando ought at least to have sat there stone-faced, with her hands in her lap, nonverbally declining to join the fun.

The confederate flag issue is interesting.  After Anderson's appearance at the NAACP to discuss it, I called both an NAACP leader and Anderson the next morning.  Since my columns appear fortnightly, I haven't had space to publish one on that; but I'll post one on this blog on Saturday.  Basically, I disagree with the lady who told me at a Progressive Voter Alliance meeting that the flag was intended as a coded notice to racists that they had a place in the Tea Party.   She might be right, but after talking with Anderson I believe the initial intention was more mischievous and generally defiant than specifically racist, although it was highly tasteless and insensitive.    The way the Tea Party handled the reaction did clearly demonstrate racism as that term is commonly used today -- although not as that term would have been used 50 years ago. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sharing the Desert

With the occasional rains, our part of the world has looked sort of like this.  Saturday even felt as cool and damp as some northeastern woods in November.  We began to
wonder if our friend Liz was right that it would cool off early this year becausee her hummingbirds had left early this year -- although at our place they're still re-enacting famous World War I aerial duels every morning for us.   Sometimes Dael worries that they spend so much time chasing each other around that no one actually gets to eat much of anything.

Meanwhile, we have seen quite a few of these guys.   Sometimes several a day -- crawling in and out of crevices between rocks and the base of the house, climbing the outside wall of the house, hanging out beneath the work-bench in the garage.  Almost daily we think of our friend Joe's remark that in forty-some years here he'd seen two of 'em.

Sunday was an odd mix. 

We enjoyed the unusually moderate temperature and the light breezes, as well as the usual quail families visiting the seed-block under the ash.  Early on I turned over the compost bins -- and a particular small pleasure was recognizing a grapefruit plant in one of them, rescuing it, and giving it a new home in a regular stand-up pot, just like more respectable plants.   (It won't survive here, but we can try.)

We also enjoyed a surfeit of sports on TV: a particularly interesting golf tournament, the debuts of two heralded rookie quarterbacks in the morning NFL games, Serena Williams prevailing in an  unusually stirring Women's Final in New York, and Sunday brunch timed to coincide with the start of the San Francisco 49ers' visit to Lambeau Field.

I missed part of the third quarter of the 'Niners' win over the Packers in Green Bay.

Dael sreamed the cat's name in a tone of voice that got me off the couch instantly.   She'd heard the familiar rattling and seen the cat curiously staring into the high grass where the sound had come from; and I heard the familiar scream.

The cat retreated to safety in the garage, and I closed the cat-door before heading out the back with the snake-noose.   Dael thought the snake was on the path between the little ash and the afghan pine, so I worked myway around to the other end of that path.  Some yellow flower had started blooming like crazy because of the rains, and I made a mental note to go back to that spot and photograph the bees on it.

The rattler was indeed there, right in the middle of the path -- and not best pleased to see me.  I stuck the noose (which, in case you haven't read previous blog entries on the subject (7 July, with a picture of the snake-noose), extends out the far end of a hollow tube, so that I can work it at a relatively safe distance) near the rattler, who lunged forward and, as I tightened it, was caught.  But we hadn't yet brought the plastic garbage can around to the site, and I had the noose so tight on his neck that I loosened it slightly, and he escaped under the Mormon Tea.   Dael brought the garbage can, and I tried again.  

I thought it would be tough to catch him in there, because of the weeds and branches.  I floated the idea of maybe just killing this one.  Dael vetoed that, because the snake hadn't attacked the cat -- and, if it was the same one, hadn't attacked her a few days earlier when it might have. It had been resting, coiled, in high grass that shielded it from view, while she was rooting out goat-heads.  It rested so peacefully that it hadn't moved when she accidentally approached it, and just stared sleepily at us when we photographed it. 

So I tried.  I could see him curled under the bush, and tickled him with the loop until he jutted his head forward into it, and this time he ended up safely trapped in the garbage can, where he stayed until the 'Niners' game was over.

Although we were pretty sure he wasn't one of the two rattlesnakes I'd moved already this summer, we'd decided to take him further away.  So once the 'Niners game ended I placed the plastic can in the truck, secured in one position, with another bungee holding the lid on the can.  We stopped to thank Dave again for making the snake-noose, then drove to a more isolated area.  (At one point we spooked a family of quail, and for quite a long time they scooted along the side of the road in front of us, evidently too panicked to consider veering right and getting off the road altogether.) 

I carried the can a good ways down an arroyo, away from the dirt road, to toss him. 

Releasing him didn't go so well this time, maybe because of the narrow arroyo, with brush on both sides.  First time I tossed the can, he coiled and rattled, but the can was too close to him for me to just pick it up and walk off.  When I did approach, he retreated back into the can, which I then picked up and tossed in a different spot; but I tossed it so ineptly that he was again close to the can, this time between the can and us.   

      At first, apparently deciding the garbage can was the enemy, he coiled facting it, rattling away, but ignoring us.  Then after I induced him to move a little beyond it, though still too close for me to grab the can, he decided we might be the enemy, and warned us off as fiercely as he knew how.  Eventually I found a dried bush the rains had uprooted a while ago.  Using the root as a handle, I pushed the bush toward him as a shield, grabbed the can with my left hand, and backed up a few steps.

Dael thanked him for not biting Bear.  I thanked him for not biting Dael.  We wished him well in his new home.

Back at our home, the sun was plunging down behind the west mesa, the cat was under the covers, and the freshly ground mesquite flour smelled almost chocolate-ish.

Soon the coyotes were howling their evening symphony.   Meanwhile the San Francisco Giants beat the Dodgers 4-0.

Then this morning, as soon as I finished posting this and went outside, I found Dael
looking at another rattler.  She'd felt the cat had been trying to tell her something, and had found the small rattler, peacefully curled up in the vegetation.  The cat hadn't disturbed the rattler, the rattler hadn't attacked the cat, and we now realized this was the "peaceful" one we'd seen a few days earlier.  It expained the fact that the one we'd moved yesterday had seemed much more of a fighter, as well as somewhat larger.

We felt torn.  We'd have liked to leave this one be; but peace of mind and the cat's safety said otherwise.  I felt kind of sad getting the snake-noose.  Initially when I touched it with the noose, it flicked its tongue occasionally but did not otherwise move.   Finally I had to touch it with the end of the metal pole, and even then it barely raised its head.  Thus the noose was around it right near its head, but I managed to keep the tension sufficient to move the snake into the garbage can without harming it.

After coffee when we went to take him for a ride, he was silent.  I've carried that can with a rattler in it for a couple of hundred meters with the snake cursing me out in Snake the whole way; yesterday afternoon's customer rattled vigorously every time I approached the garbage can, even though he couldn't really see me, let alone attack.  This guy?  Nothing.  If I hadn't known better I'd have guessed I'd open up the can out in the desert and find no one there.  As we drove I mused that if ever a rattler had a sweet disposition, it was this one.

When we got there, he proved it.  I opened up the can, expecting the usual angry creature inside, and saw . . . . that he was resting comfortably and not the least troubled by our looking at him and shooting his picture.  When (with some regret) I rudely tossed the can a few meters away to knock him out of it, his first reaction wasn't to coil and rattle at us, but to quietly slither back into the familiar shadows of the can.  I tossed again, and this time when he landed he coiled.  I walked around to the
back of the can to kick it further from him, then picked it up and walked away.  The moving can did frighten him, and he finally adopted a really fierce pose, reminding us that although he seemed as sweet-natured as a rattler could get, he wasn't a pushover.   We wished him well and apologed for the disruption -- and thanked him for his courtesy.

Then as we walked back toward the truck Dael
spotted a tiny Texas horned toad hiding under a sprig of vegetation.  He was about two inches long, maybe less.

He reminded us of the babies we'd kept looking for after watching an adult bury her eggs near the ash tree.

We contemplated him for awhile, warning him about the huge monster we'd unleashed not too far from him. 

Then we went home to start our day. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

New Mexico Water Conference - Seeking Solutions to a Tough Problem

            We spent a full day Tuesday at the annual water conference organized by U.S. Senator Udall’s office and the Water Resources Research Institute at NMSU. 

            It was interesting – as in the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

            We’re in trouble.   Remember Burn Lake?  One expert called it “our window on the water table.”  The water table here was high enough in the early 1970's that it filled a construction pit Burn Construction Company had dug.  (Hence the name.)  It lasted until this year.  That it’s completely dry means the water table has dropped.  Substantially.

            Continued drought will drop the water table further.  

            Rain and the flow of the Rio Grande from Colorado give New Mexico a certain amount of water.  We’re required to send a certain quantity each year to Texas.  What’s left isn’t nearly enough.  Farmers make up the difference by pumping water from the ground.  Between 45 and 50% of this year’s irrigation water will be ground water.

            But this carries substantial costs.

            First, we’re dipping into savings.  If that continues, it eventually ends in bankruptcy.        Elephant Butte and Caballo are down to 8% and 6% of capacity, respectively.  We don’t know exactly how much water is in the aquifer.

            Secondly, crops don’t like well-water as much as they like rain-water, or rain-water stored in Elephant Butte and delivered by the river.  The ground water is too salty.  If you garden, you’ve seen the effect on your plants.  This salinity compounds the water problem, because as we pump water, and excess salty water flows out of an irrigated field and travels down the river, the river water and soil grow saltier too.   One expert called it “a three-way train wreck involving the prior appropriation rule, the Rio Grande Compact, and salinity.”

            “Prior appropriation” means that when water gets scarce, the guy who had his water rights first is in the best position.  If your rights are junior, you could be in trouble.  Theoretically, that means when we have to deliver most of our water to Texas (under the Rio Grande Compact) and don’t have nearly enough, junior water rights evaporate.  On the other hand, a former State Engineer recounted a time in the early 1990's when Gov. Bruce King had to decide: do we suspend junior users’ rights or start buying out people’s rights?  The law permitted the former; but it would have meant cutting out junior rights all the way back to 1932.   King decided the state should buy people out.

            As one speaker pointed out, both the prior appropriation doctrine (embedded in our state constitution) and the Rio Grande Compact (signed in 1906) are more than a century old.  They’re from a time when officials imagined they could “make the desert bloom.”  We know better now, he said, and might want to look into adjusting the rules to fit the game as played in the 21st Century.
            Several speakers used the phrase “demand management.”   That’s a fancy way of saying charge more money for water.  It’s amazing how much less water people “need” when the cost goes up.

            Demand is increasing.  The county’s population is rising, Santa Theresa is about to be developed, and folks are planting pecan trees like mad.  Supply will almost certainly continue to decrease because of natural cycles exacerbated by human activity.

            With your marriage or your car’s engine, it ain’t real smart to ignore warning signs and hope for the best. 

            It’s the same with water.  The conference was sub-titled “Hard Choices,” and maybe we still have a little time to come together and make some hard choices.
            One speaker suggested that if nothing were done, declining water resources could some day force us to cut water to agriculture or the Bosque del Apache by 50% to make ends meet; but those aren’t steps anyone wants to take. 

            There are promising steps in progress, including an effort to analyze more fully the actual amount of water in the aquifer.  Changing crop patterns could cut down on agricultural water use, although there are cultural barriers to that.  Easing the requirements for water transfers might make it more feasible for a farmer or rancher to lease water rights to a town or college in times of urgent need, without losing those rights.   Scientists are investigating ways of treating  brackish water, making more use of wastewater, and the like.

            In passing, I should note how refreshing it was to watch Senator Udall sit through the entire day, participating in a meaningful way, talking with knowledge and insight, listening with interest, moderating a discussion with humor and useful questions.   The capacity crowd included Republicans and Democrats.  Government officials, academics, and private-sector folks all spoke. 

            This wasn’t the kind of one-sided presentation some elected representatives set up for themselves, in which they’re surrounded by their supporters and untroubled by conflicting points of view.  It was a sincere effort to explore a problem and stumble toward some answers.  Udall seemed to seek guidance from a diverse group of experts – rather than “solve” the problem by checking which solutions fit his ideological bent or would be convenient for a particular group of financial backers. 

            Basically, the conference focused on sharing facts and asking the right questions.  If we pay no attention to these problems now, we may not like the solutions that get forced on us some day.

[The foregoing column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Tuesday, rather than the usual Sunday.]