Tuesday, September 4, 2012

New Mexico Water Conference - Seeking Solutions to a Tough Problem

            We spent a full day Tuesday at the annual water conference organized by U.S. Senator Udall’s office and the Water Resources Research Institute at NMSU. 

            It was interesting – as in the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

            We’re in trouble.   Remember Burn Lake?  One expert called it “our window on the water table.”  The water table here was high enough in the early 1970's that it filled a construction pit Burn Construction Company had dug.  (Hence the name.)  It lasted until this year.  That it’s completely dry means the water table has dropped.  Substantially.

            Continued drought will drop the water table further.  

            Rain and the flow of the Rio Grande from Colorado give New Mexico a certain amount of water.  We’re required to send a certain quantity each year to Texas.  What’s left isn’t nearly enough.  Farmers make up the difference by pumping water from the ground.  Between 45 and 50% of this year’s irrigation water will be ground water.

            But this carries substantial costs.

            First, we’re dipping into savings.  If that continues, it eventually ends in bankruptcy.        Elephant Butte and Caballo are down to 8% and 6% of capacity, respectively.  We don’t know exactly how much water is in the aquifer.

            Secondly, crops don’t like well-water as much as they like rain-water, or rain-water stored in Elephant Butte and delivered by the river.  The ground water is too salty.  If you garden, you’ve seen the effect on your plants.  This salinity compounds the water problem, because as we pump water, and excess salty water flows out of an irrigated field and travels down the river, the river water and soil grow saltier too.   One expert called it “a three-way train wreck involving the prior appropriation rule, the Rio Grande Compact, and salinity.”

            “Prior appropriation” means that when water gets scarce, the guy who had his water rights first is in the best position.  If your rights are junior, you could be in trouble.  Theoretically, that means when we have to deliver most of our water to Texas (under the Rio Grande Compact) and don’t have nearly enough, junior water rights evaporate.  On the other hand, a former State Engineer recounted a time in the early 1990's when Gov. Bruce King had to decide: do we suspend junior users’ rights or start buying out people’s rights?  The law permitted the former; but it would have meant cutting out junior rights all the way back to 1932.   King decided the state should buy people out.

            As one speaker pointed out, both the prior appropriation doctrine (embedded in our state constitution) and the Rio Grande Compact (signed in 1906) are more than a century old.  They’re from a time when officials imagined they could “make the desert bloom.”  We know better now, he said, and might want to look into adjusting the rules to fit the game as played in the 21st Century.
            Several speakers used the phrase “demand management.”   That’s a fancy way of saying charge more money for water.  It’s amazing how much less water people “need” when the cost goes up.

            Demand is increasing.  The county’s population is rising, Santa Theresa is about to be developed, and folks are planting pecan trees like mad.  Supply will almost certainly continue to decrease because of natural cycles exacerbated by human activity.

            With your marriage or your car’s engine, it ain’t real smart to ignore warning signs and hope for the best. 

            It’s the same with water.  The conference was sub-titled “Hard Choices,” and maybe we still have a little time to come together and make some hard choices.
            One speaker suggested that if nothing were done, declining water resources could some day force us to cut water to agriculture or the Bosque del Apache by 50% to make ends meet; but those aren’t steps anyone wants to take. 

            There are promising steps in progress, including an effort to analyze more fully the actual amount of water in the aquifer.  Changing crop patterns could cut down on agricultural water use, although there are cultural barriers to that.  Easing the requirements for water transfers might make it more feasible for a farmer or rancher to lease water rights to a town or college in times of urgent need, without losing those rights.   Scientists are investigating ways of treating  brackish water, making more use of wastewater, and the like.

            In passing, I should note how refreshing it was to watch Senator Udall sit through the entire day, participating in a meaningful way, talking with knowledge and insight, listening with interest, moderating a discussion with humor and useful questions.   The capacity crowd included Republicans and Democrats.  Government officials, academics, and private-sector folks all spoke. 

            This wasn’t the kind of one-sided presentation some elected representatives set up for themselves, in which they’re surrounded by their supporters and untroubled by conflicting points of view.  It was a sincere effort to explore a problem and stumble toward some answers.  Udall seemed to seek guidance from a diverse group of experts – rather than “solve” the problem by checking which solutions fit his ideological bent or would be convenient for a particular group of financial backers. 

            Basically, the conference focused on sharing facts and asking the right questions.  If we pay no attention to these problems now, we may not like the solutions that get forced on us some day.

[The foregoing column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Tuesday, rather than the usual Sunday.] 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your summary of the WRRI conference. Good job and we appreciate it. I did not know that the prior rights had never been actually used in NM. Money (charging for the water) is the only real answer.

    Warren Harkey