Q & A with retiring WRRI Director Tom Bahr

In his last days as Director of the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute,Tom Bahr reflected on his 21-year tenure and candidly addressed questions posed by Divining Rod editor, Cathy Ortega Klett.

Cathy: In your first address as Director of the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute, you described your philosophy on the role of the research administrator. In essence you said you didn’t believe it the duty of the research administrator to decide which water management scheme is best. You also said that the role of research in water resources management should be to assure that results of our water management actions are foreseen, that they are predictable, and that they are laid out in such a way that the public can look at the options and determine whether or not they are acceptable. Do you still hold that philosophy or has it been modified over your career?

Tom: I do recall that I did say those things-I think it was at my first water conference here in 1978 and I certainly still hold to the philosophy of balancing tradeoffs-probably more so now than 20 years ago. In fact, I preach it every chance I get. I’ve seen a number of academic researchers over the past 30 years who get so wrapped up in their particular area of expertise that they lose sight of how the real world functions. I’ve come to learn that wise water management must consider a host of variables such as water rights/law, funding, political realities, hydrologic/chemical/biological constraints, jurisdictional constraints, personalities of the players, economics, risk and uncertainty, to name a few. Let me give you an example of the type of scientific recommendation that would cause a major credibility problem for a researcher. Say a research biologist, for example, makes a recommendation to maintain a constant lake level at Elephant Butte Reservoir for the purpose of enhancing largemouth bass productivity. This may be a perfectly logical and sound scientific conclusion of a research project. A constant lake level would certainly allow for needed stability to support more aquatic vegetation and generally improve fish habitat. This is a good recommendation from the viewpoint of propagating and growing monster bass (and I do love to catch big fish myself). Maintaining a constant lake level, however, is simply not realistic from either a hydrological or meteorological standpoint, not to mention that constant lake levels could seriously impair the ability to meet legally mandated downstream water deliveries. This researcher would not enjoy much credibility among professional water managers not to mention irrigators. I can think of other examples, but this is one that came up many years ago and it still stands out in my mind.

Cathy: In 1978 when you joined the New Mexico WRRI, major concerns demanding attention included water use efficiency in agriculture, water quality management research, saline water research, comprehensive economic and legal assessments of water management and technology transfer. Have we made headway in these areas? What research priorities do you see for New Mexico in the coming decade?

Tom: We have indeed made good progress in many of these areas. For example, there have been significant advancements in irrigation technologies and irrigation scheduling to the point where it is no longer so much a question of do irrigators have the technology and know-how to become more efficient, but rather a question of how best to remove the legal and institutional disincentives which keep irrigators from adopting these technologies. What I’m saying is that now saved water would no longer belong to the irrigator who saved it. Under current policy, it would be taken from the irrigator and be subject to appropriation by someone else. This is the “use it or lose it” issue that those of us in the water community are quite familiar with. In this case, technology seems to have out-paced policy.

As to the question of research priorities, I could list many for the coming decade. What is most important to me, however, is that whatever research priority is chosen should have a clear and identifiable link to a “real world” water problem.

Cathy: You have been active in water policy at the state, regional and national levels. Has interaction between our state and federal governments changed significantly in water management over the past two decades?

Tom: Yes. There have been very major changes. The 1980s witnessed a phase out of the large-scale water projects in the west, and a gradual shift by the Bureau of Reclamation from building and operating projects into a new role of becoming water managers. Historically, the federal government had largely maintained a hands-off policy and recognized the primacy of state water laws as they related to water management. This was true up until the beginning of the Clinton administration. Federal water agencies have since begun to assert more and more authority in matters which were traditionally left to the states. A good example of this is the recent reluctance of the United States to recognize the jurisdiction of a New Mexico state court in the adjudication of water rights in the lower Rio Grande Basin, and their subsequent assertion in a federal court that the United States owns all of the water of the Rio Grande Project-even the tributary groundwater! I’m not at liberty to go into more detail on this subject because some of these matters are the subject of current mediation, and a federal judge has placed a gag order on those proceedings. What I have said, however, is a matter of public record and it has state and local officials very concerned.

Another thing I would like to say is that it is my personal opinion that the current posture of the federal government in water matters is probably NOT a policy originating from the current Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, Eluid Martinez. Eluid, as most folks know, was a former State Engineer of New Mexico who had worked side by side with Steve Reynolds for many years. Eluid is a very skilled and capable water manager who is very sensitive to the prerogatives of states to manage their own internal waters. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Justice Department had a role in calling some of these shots.

Cathy: Would you like to give any advice to the new director of the New Mexico WRRI?

Tom: Yes. Get to know as many of the water managers in the state as soon as you can and maintain these contacts on a regular basis. Travel to every corner of the state and get to know what and where the problems are. Get to know the legislators. Don’t just spend time getting to know the university researchers, although this is very important too. The WRRI Director needs to be the “window” to the university water research community through which water managers look. The job is like an agent-you get people in need of a solution to their problem together with researchers who can help them solve their problems. You need to be very familiar with both of these groups.

Cathy: What is the outlook for federal and state research funding?

Tom: I wish I could be more positive on this question, but the outlook is not good for any significant increases either in state appropriations or our base funding from the USGS. Nevertheless, there are various opportunities for state and federal funding of specific projects. These must be pursued on a case by case basis.

Cathy: What do you see as the major water issues facing the nation in the next decade?

Tom: On a national scale, I think the major water issues will probably focus on water quality. Agricultural operations are being increasingly targeted by the EPA, especially feedlots, dairies and nonpoint source runoff from ranch and farm lands. Because of pressure from radical environmental groups who regularly like to sue state and federal regulatory agencies if they do not move as fast as these groups would like, it is vitally important for these agencies to base their decisions on solid science and not cave in to the personal agendas of the green gestapo. That may sound like a harsh statement but that is the nature of the real world.

Water issues for the coming decade for the semiarid southwest will also deal with water quality but to a lesser extent. With increasing population putting an ever greater demand on very limited water supplies, water law and policy will be where the action is.

Cathy: Your tenure at the WRRI has witnessed lengthy and expensive legal action concerning various water issues. Do you have hope for resolving our water problems in a less litigious manner?

Tom: I certainly have hope. One must recognize, however, that lawyers have traditionally made their living off of conflict and that litigation has been the normal way conflicts were resolved. As long as there are conflicts there will be lawyers, although in my opinion I think we have too many lawyers. Having now participated in a formal mediation process, I seriously believe that a lot of litigation can be avoided. Sure, there are still going to be a few arrogant arm-waving bulldog lawyers who live and breathe to fight in a courtroom, but there are a growing number of lawyers who see the benefits of alternate dispute resolution (ADR) methods. With the tremendous costs of protracted litigation, clients may find it far cheaper to use ADR and still protect their interests. There obviously are some interests which are so great that they will be litigated at any cost; however, I believe many conflicts can be hammered out successfully through mediation.

Cathy: You have mentioned that you will remain an active player in the New Mexico water community. What would you like to be doing in the coming years related to water issues?

Tom: I’d like to become a highly paid consultant! Seriously, I plan to do some consulting but only on those projects that are fun. I have fun, for example, when I see progress in finding regional solutions to water problems. We have made significant progress with the New Mexico-Texas Water Commission. I enjoy being a part of it, and would like to continue because it is fun. I’ve been told by many retirees that you must learn to say no or you will be busier than you want to be. I don’t mind being busy, but I am looking forward to having a greater say in selecting those things I stay busy at. As a general rule I really enjoy working with honest and smart people who collectively can effect change for the better. But I also enjoy working with a rod and reel and with dishonest fishing buddies.

Cathy: Aside from water-related consulting projects, we understand you have developed some farming skills. Will we see you out in the Mesilla Valley irrigating your crops?

Tom: Perhaps, but you probably won’t see me out there with a shovel and boots because I’ve installed a sub-surface drip irrigation system on my vineyard. I did this not for the primary purpose of conserving water, which by the way it does do well, but because of the convenience. This allows me to simply flip a switch on my irrigation well and go to my “day job.” I’m soon going to be putting the system on a timer so I won’t even have to flip the switch. Seriously, you can’t just walk away from these systems even though they are convenient. They do require frequent attention, especially if a gopher bites a hole in a drip line. In any case, I like the system but, better yet, my grapes also like it.