About two dozen South Valley farmers demonstrated in Civic Plaza on Wednesday in response to agricultural water use comments made by Bernalillo County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada, who called the farmers a to be among the “biggest water wasters”.
The commissioner backtracked on his comments at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utilities Authority board meeting on Wednesday.
“My comments on agricultural irrigation methods were not intended to be criticism,” Quezada said. “We all face the effects of long-term drought, and farmers know this better than anyone. There is no greater use of water than to irrigate the crops that feed us.
At the March 23 board meeting, Quezada spoke after a presentation on the utility’s water use goals.
“In my office, we did research and found that a lot of agriculture and farmers tend to be the biggest water wasters,” he said.
He later clarified that he should have originally said “water users” and not “wasters”.
Quezada, who represents the county’s southernmost region, pointed to flood irrigation and reports of farmers watering “fields of weeds.”
The backlash was quick before the commissioner clarified.
South Valley farmer Fidel Gonzales said farmers are not wasting natural resources.
“Farming in the Valley is not a Netflix series,” Gonzales said, a reference to Quezada’s acting career. “This is real life.”
Several farmers carrying pitchforks and wearing coveralls attended Wednesday’s protest, holding signs reading “Farmers don’t waste water” and “Support local farmers.”
Also present were groups who fought for years against the Santolina development project on the Southwest Mesa.
“Those systems that came after… The new Mexican state needs to recognize our farmers in their own right as technical experts,” said Alejandría Lyons, environmental justice organizer with the SouthWest Organizing Project.
Quezada said he knows how precious water is to his constituents. He referenced the county’s $64 million investment in pandemic relief funds in water infrastructure.
“They can get mad at me all they want, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to be good water stewards,” Quezada told the Journal. “What I wanted to say at this meeting is that we need to make sure that this (farming) community is also doing its best to conserve, and if not, how can we as as government, help them. It was not punitive or meant as a punishment.
All county residents have a right to water, Quezada said, and abuses must be investigated.
“The only time anyone speaks out against water is when we’re looking at how we’re creating jobs and affordable housing in my district,” he said.
Jason Casuga, CEO and Chief District Engineer of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy, made a presentation to the utility board on Wednesday.
The agency that manages irrigation of the Cochiti Dam in Bosque del Apache uses federal grants to help farmers level fields and improve irrigation efficiency.
“Getting your farm as efficient as possible is an expensive proposition, especially when it comes to laser-leveling a field…or investing in soil health,” Casuga said.
Theresa Davis is a member of the Report for America body that covers water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.