Farmers push back on Bernalillo County commissioner’s water comments

Santiago Maestas, president of the South Valley Regional Association of Acequias, speaks during a news conference supporting local farmers on Wednesday at Civic Plaza. (Mike Sandoval/For the Albuquerque Journal)

About two dozen South Valley farmers protested at Civic Plaza on Wednesday in response to comments about agricultural water use made by Bernalillo County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada who referred to farmers as being among the “biggest wasters of water.”

The commissioner walked back his comments during Wednesday’s Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board meeting.

“My comments about agricultural irrigation methods were not intended as a criticism,” Quezada said. “We are all dealing with the effects of long-term drought, and farmers know that better than anyone. There is no more important use of water than to irrigate the crops that feed us.”

At the March 23 board meeting, Quezada had spoken up after a presentation on the utility’s water use goals.

“In my office we’ve been doing some research, and we’ve found that a lot of the agriculture and the farmers tend to be the biggest wasters of water,” he said.

He later clarified that he originally should have said “users of water,” not “wasters.”

Quezada, who represents the county’s southernmost area, pointed to flood irrigation and reports of farmers watering “fields of weeds.”

Backlash was swift prior to the commissioner’s clarification.

South Valley farmer Fidel Gonzales said farmers don’t waste natural resources.

“Agriculture in the valley is not a Netflix series,” Gonzales said, a reference to Quezada’s acting career. “This is real life.”

Several pitchfork-carrying, overall-wearing farmers attended Wednesday’s protest, holding signs that read “Farmers don’t waste water” and “Support local farmers.”

Also in attendance were groups that have fought for years against the proposed Santolina development on the Southwest Mesa.

“These systems that have come after … New Mexican statehood need to recognize our farmers in their right as technical experts,” said Alejandría Lyons, an environmental justice organizer with the SouthWest Organizing Project.

Quezada said he knows how valuable water is to his constituents. He referenced the county’s $64 million investment of pandemic relief funds in water infrastructure.

“They can get upset with me all they want, but it’s everybody’s responsibility to be good stewards of water,” Quezada told the Journal. “What I meant in that meeting was we’ve got to make sure that that (agricultural) community is also doing the best they can to conserve, and if not, how do we as government assist them. It was not being punitive or meant as a punishment.”

All county residents have a right to water, Quezada said, and misuse should be studied.

“The only time anybody’s up in arms about water is when we’re looking at how we’re creating jobs and affordable housing in my district,” he said.

Virginia Necochea with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center and Alejandría Lyons with the SouthWest Organizing Project pour water brought by South Valley farmers from their acequias after a news conference at Civic Plaza on Wednesday. The farmers and environmental groups were protesting Bernalillo County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada’s comments about farmers and water use. (Mike Sandoval/For the Albuquerque Journal)

Jason Casuga, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District CEO and chief engineer, presented to the utility board on Wednesday.

The agency that manages irrigation from Cochiti Dam to Bosque del Apache uses federal grants to help farmers to level fields and improve irrigation efficiency.

“Bringing your farm up to as being as efficient as it can is an expensive proposition, especially when that is things like laser leveling a field … or investing in soil health,” Casuga said.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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