Trickle-down economics may have more than one meaning in New Mexico. The traditional definition explains that benefits and relief for the wealthy will eventually benefit everyone else. In new UNM Water Resources research, however, the trickle-down economics of irrigation, may be running out of water to drip–literally.  

The latest saga in the battle between water conservation and water laws is unfolding in a paper co-authored by Water Resources Alumnus Annalise Porter, Utton Center Writer-In-Residence John Fleck, and Robert P. Berrens of the Department of Economics. 

“You need to do the science to understand how much climate change is affecting the available water supply,” Fleck said. “Then you really need to understand the laws and policies because that then affects who gets what of this diminished supply of water that we have.” 

It all started in 1967, when New Mexico leaders wanted to incentivize a combination of land use and the economy. The law essentially made it easier for landowners to operate as farms and receive irrigation.  

Porter and Fleck selfie
John Fleck and Annalise Porter

“I was super excited about this law which is great,” Porter said. “I first found an old Natural Resources Journal article from 1968 from a guy who was criticizing the law when it was passed. It was really the cornerstone of the whole project.” 

Still today, it reads “tax breaks are determined on the basis of the land’s capacity to produce agricultural products.” 

Like many water-related laws, 60 years later, it may be time for a rewrite. While similar laws have been adjusted across the country, it’s still fairly simple in New Mexico to get a tax break and not do much to earn it. 

“The bar is fairly low in New Mexico, which I think initially was probably very helpful because if the legislative intent here was to support these struggling subsistence farmers, they may not have had a lot of land or a lot of income coming from it,” Porter said. “I can envision that being a really useful, helpful, supportive start to the program that isn't really doing a service anymore. A lot of water policy seems to be in that boat–made with good intentions and now should not be followed anymore.” 

Diving into the lack of change was exactly what Porter initiated thanks to grant funding from the Climate Adaptation Science Center in Oklahoma. Upon calling the Bernalillo County Assessor’s Office, Porter found the criticism did not stop in 1968. 

“It felt like a massive disconnect between the Assessor’s office and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. These are two offices that I assumed were working closely together on this law, and they weren't. The County Assessor's Office expressed some frustration to us about how wide that gray area was,” she said. 

Fleck supported the topic and Porter’s enthusiasm for research. Through careful data analysis, map comparisons and in-person ditch walks and bike rides, the pair discovered quite a few discrepancies. 

“I did a lot of starting to walk around ditches and looking at what agriculture in the Bernalillo County area looked like, which turned out to not really look like agriculture that much at all,” Porter said. 

In their research, they found wealthier areas of Bernalillo County were more equipped and well-endowed to irrigate and maintain farm and green spaces. That meant these areas were also first in line for tax breaks, while still using a fairly unregulated amount of water. 

“I went into it thinking these folks are cheating or that this law is being taken advantage of. I definitely went into it fairly negatively,” Porter said. 

In fact, they found in one year, the Rio Grande irrigated 4,388 acres of land in Bernalillo County, for homes involved in this tax break Many of these homes were not engaged in proper agricultural use either, leaving qualms when it came to enough water use for 40,000 homes. There were over 100 homes, many of which Fleck and Porter viewed in the Los Ranchos area. Many they saw did not contain heaps of crops, but rather, just your typical yards.  

“The amount of water involved in the properties identified by Bernalillo County was really, really large,” Fleck said. “This is an enormous use of water based on a policy that is not being discussed as part of our water policy decisions.”  

Meanwhile, less affluent areas, with smaller areas of land, did not seem to contain as many irrigated parcels of land, and still paid a hefty amount in property taxes. 

“I think one of the questions I have is the question of environmental justice and equity. Green space is concentrated in some of our most affluent communities, and it uses a lot of water, but communities are getting the benefit of all this green space,." – John Fleck

The requirements for what constitutes a farm are also incredibly minimal, Porter and Fleck say. 

“The gray area allows flexibility and that can be a good thing as well as a bad thing. I think there's some value to that, but also, you can have a couple of chickens on a quarter-acre of land and submit a waiver and it could potentially get approved,” Porter said. 

It’s more murky when these land-owners are getting their water from a well. That’s even more unregulated, and may cause some strife and struggles if altered. 

“You have those old policies that people optimized and built their lives around. Homeowners built their lives around this style of a home with a ditch in the back for irrigation water for a pasture for a horse and a tax break,” Fleck said. “If you take away the tax break, you change the economics in the structure of their lives. This is why water policies are so hard to change because there's always communities that have optimized around them that have strong political incentives to fight you and will.” 

There’s still the trade off that the law tussled with in the 60’s. Yes, the wealthy may be the ones behind the water use, while reaping the benefits, but their efforts often preserve green areas in a barren desert. 

“I went into this thinking this was really terrible. It was a law developed for one reason that is not being used that way, and that's certainly true, but it's also providing this really interesting and enormous benefit in terms of preserving greenspace in Albuquerque, which is something that we value as a community,” Fleck said. “I think we came away from this thinking that this is, in fact, a bit more complicated than we had thought going in. The best research is that way. It's always more complicated.” 

That’s the tricky situation this research has just scratched the surface of. Right now, it’s a predicament the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy is beginning to uncover. Porter found that largely since the initial law, little agency coordination has taken place when it comes to managing the water and land aspects together. 

“The data disconnect and the data gaps were crushing to me,” she said. “We would have known so much more about what this program is doing and how it's functioning. We could have known for decades versus a graduate student, scraping it together with grant funding.” 

It’s still clear however, wherever the answers lie, that making do with fewer trickles of water, is going to be the reality. 

“We're all wrestling with how we deal with a future with less water and still keep the communities that we love intact In New Mexico,” Fleck said. “Everybody will have less water. That's the only way around it. How do we think about a law like this which may be allowing affluent communities to get a disproportionate share of that increasingly scarce water? I’m not sure I see what the fix is, but it’s really valuable to put it on the radar.” 

Read Porter’s full research paper right now at The Natural Resources Journal.