In spite of a healthy cattle industry and abundant crops of pecans, alfalfa and chile peppers, dairy tops the list as New Mexico's most profitable agricultural industry. With abundant dairies across the state, especially in southeastern New Mexico, the industry represents 39 percent of the state's total ag economy, just edging out beef cattle.
But dairy officials in New Mexico, already suffering from a multiyear drought, are facing new challenges, the most recent concerning proposed new rules over industry wastewater disposal. The issue is just one of several examples cited in recent years by environmental groups who have been fighting to clean up what they term out-of-control groundwater contamination around the state.
While the dairy industry appears to be targeted by environmentalists in what they term an effort to protect the state's dwindling water resources, of much greater concern is groundwater contamination by mining industries in New Mexico.
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The fight over the environment erupted shortly after New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez was sworn into office nearly three years ago. Environmental groups charge that Martinez's pro-industry politics has resulted in carte blanche changes in the state's environmental department, which weakened a once-strong environmental position by state officials and in turn cleared the way for rewriting many of the state's regulations concerning groundwater contamination, especially relating to the state's mining industry.
While the issues primarily center on copper and uranium mining within the state, other types of wastewater disposal, including that produced by dairy operations, have come under fire by the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Law Center and New Mexico Attorney General Gary King.
King has been vocal over groundwater contamination issues and supports environmental concerns that would force tighter rule changes over groundwater disposal by the dairy and mining industries within the state.
A Sierra Club attorney had sought to move hearings on rule changes before the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission from Roswell to Santa Fe, saying that such technical hearings should be set in the state capital to comply with existing statutes.
But state dairy industry officials petitioned a state district court to require those hearings to be staged in Roswell in the southeast sector of the state where 75 percent of the state's dairies are located.
No change of venue
The New Mexico Supreme Court last week upheld the decision to keep hearings in Roswell, according to a New Mexico Environment Department announcement.
Beverly Idsinga, the executive director of the Dairy Producers of New Mexico, said dairymen are pleased with the court’s decision because it will limit the time required to travel to and from Santa Fe to participate in the hearings.
She said under terms of the proposed new rules, the dairy industry would be facing requirements that are burdensome and unreasonable, and dairymen input is critical to represent the industry's position.
"Dairy farming is an around-the clock business," she said. “And dairy farmers can’t afford to spend several days away from their operations."
Though the High Court refused to overturn a First Judicial Court ruling to hold the hearings in Roswell, Sierra Cub officials say the Court also indicated that State Attorney General Gary King would be allowed to be heard at the hearings.
The environment department had attempted to bar King from participating according to Sierra Club’s New Mexico lobbyist, Don Lorimier. According to State environmental department officials, the dairy industry represents a major employer of agriculture workers with over 4,200 employees.
In spite of where the hearings are staged, Sierra Club officials are hopeful the state will adopt new rules in the near future to help protect New Mexico's limited and dwindling groundwater resources.