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So, just how bad is New Mexico's water problem, anyway? It's worse than you think. Much worse.
For starters, we're experiencing one of the worst droughts in 100 years. According to the Office of the State Engineer, the lack of precipitation has reduced Elephant Butte Reservoir to its lowest level in decades, and caused the state's total reservoir storage to reach an all-time low. Irrigators who rely on surface water have been particularly hard hit. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District began the season on a strict rotation schedule, while the Carlsbad irrigation District started with only thirty-three percent of full supply. Municipal surface water users have also been affected. Las Vegas and Santa Fe were forced to enact severe water use restrictions in 2002. Wells dependent on seasonal recharge are going dry all over the state, even in areas not usually affected by dry conditions. Some small communities dependent on shallow, stream-connected aquifers, such as Cerrillos, have had to resort to hauling drinking water. As bad as it is, however, drought is not the real problem. Drought is a natural phenomenon, and by and large one the natural environment is adapted to. It's cyclical, and while it might last six months or six years, eventually conditions will improve. The real water problem in New Mexico is chronic and long-term, and won't be solved by a good snow pack this winter. Neither will planting smaller lawns, taking shorter showers, fixing leaking faucets and replacing old commodes solve it. Those things will help, but they don't go far enough because many of us are simply out of water, period. We're not just a little behind in balancing our water books; we're totally broke, busted, and ruined. We just don't know it yet.
The reason we don't is because our use of ground water reserves has allowed us to ignore our extremely limited water income, and obscured the true state of our meager water accounts. We've been living off our savings, savings that in many cases took thousands of years to accumulate. What's worse, we've been using those savings like there's no tomorrow, living lavishly and paying no attention to how much spending our water budget will really permit. But now those savings are running out, and like a high-flying corporation supported by nothing more than groundless speculation and accounting sleights of hand, we are finding that our water bills far exceed our real water assets. In Albuquerque, for example, where annual deficit spending is estimated at 55,000 acre-feet, the water table has dropped more than 200 feet in the last thirty years. Ruidoso's 600 to 800-foot deep North Fork Well flowed at ground level when it was drilled in 1984, but water levels recently have been reported at close to 450 feet below the surface. Water levels in Santa Fe's Buckman Well Field have dropped more than 100 feet in less than twenty years, and cracks in the ground have appeared at the surface. The huge cones of depression created by mining these ground water resources will continue to suck water into them long after the pumps have been shut off. But even as springs disappear, water levels drop and wells go dry far too many of us continue on as if nothing has changed. Like a gambler who can't stop betting or a drug addict blinded to his own addiction, we deny the reality of what's happening around us. Bedazzled by our own ingenuity and lulled into somnolence by the repetitive assurances of those who stand to profit from our downfall, we have come to believe in the mantra that "more water will be found." The laws of nature, however, are immutable, and no amount of wishful thinking will change the fundamental fact of water scarcity in this part of the world. We've dammed and diverted everything that can be, and there's no more water to be had. We've got to learn to live within our means, and as anyone who's ever had to stick to a tight budget knows, that can be a painful lesson. Our inclination is to put that lesson off as long as possible, but every day we delay only adds to our mounting debts. It's time to knuckle down, honestly assess the state of our water affairs, and make the hard choices needed to balance our water income and expenses.
Balancing our water checkbook is best accomplished through a process of regional and statewide water planning. The state has authorized the former and established a template for devising such plans. The steps involved consist of determining a given region's water supply, the demand for water now and in the future, the alternatives available to balance supply with demand, and which of those alternatives are most consistent with people's values. A final and perhaps most important step is developing strategies for implementing the alternatives decided on. When complete, these regional plans will form the basis for a single statewide water plan. In all of this the technical assessments of supply and demand, though critically important, are probably the easiest tasks to accomplish. In most cases we know with certainty that our water accounts are badly overdrawn, and it's not necessary to reconcile them down to the last drop before identifying potential alternatives and choosing from among them. The hard part is in the choosing, for it forces us to confront the truth that we can't have it all and must decide, based on our values and on what really matters most, where we will spend our limited water income. Will we spend it on hot tubs and ornamental landscaping? Will we use it to turn the state into a Mecca for golf club-toting snowbirds and to double or triple the population? Or will we use it to support basic human needs and to maintain some semblance of the natural world that existed here before man's heavy footprint scarred the land. Whatever our choices, the environmental, economic, and quality of life repercussions will be huge. Money won't substitute for water in this decision-making, because money won't grow crops or bluegrass, and it won't support the numerous other living things that depend on it for survival. Nor will paper water rights substitute for real wet water. Although such rights, particularly those that are most senior, must be taken into account as we decide to what purposes our water should be put, we also know with certainty that the state's water resources are significantly over-appropriated. This means that many more rights have been issued than there is water to support them, perhaps two to three times as many. Once again, it's our reliance on ground water that has allowed this situation to develop by masking the reality of our limited water income.
In every corner of the state, citizens are undertaking the difficult task of reconciling their regional water checkbooks. To do so they're enlisting the help of hydrologists and biologists, agronomists and economists, lawyers and engineers. One does not, however, need a particular set of initials trailing one's surname to participate in water planning. All of us have a stake in this process, and all of us have something very important to contribute. That something is the expression of our individual and collective values, for it is those values that should and must be the final determinant of what goes into the regional and statewide water plans. Tempered with objective technical assessments, they will form the basis for decisions about how best to use our water. Whether or not one chooses to participate in making those decisions, the reality is that they will be made, and soon. Driving the process is New Mexico's legal obligation to deliver water to downstream users' interests in Texas, Arizona, California and Mexico, population growth, and the vagaries of nature. Indeed, to a greater extent than many people realize, decisions about water use are being made every day, even if they aren't characterized as such. Every time a new subdivision goes in or a new golf course is planted, it amounts to a decision to expend our limited water in that particular way, and forecloses the possibility of using it for some other purpose. It limits our future options. In water-scarce New Mexico everyone should make it his or her business to become informed and to participate in shaping our collective water future. In the Middle Rio Grande planning region, which includes much of Sandoval, Bernalillo, and Valencia counties, a citizens group called the Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly and the Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments are jointly developing a regional water plan. In less than one year that plan will be submitted to the Interstate Stream Commission, which is overseeing the regional water planning process. For information on the Middle Rio Grande planning process and how to get involved, see the Water Assembly's website at www.waterassembly.org or contact the Council of Governments. For information about other planning regions, see the website for the Office of the State Engineer at www.seo.state.nm.us. Don't stand by and let someone else decide your water future for you. Get involved in the water planning process, and take control of your water destiny.
Kevin Bean has worked on and written about water issues in the Middle Rio Grande for fifteen years. He works as a journalist for The Independent, an East Mountain news-paper, and is active with the Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly, a citizens group charged with crafting a regional water plan. Kevin and his family live in Carnuel, three miles east of Albuquerque.
Editor's Note: See Taking Charge of Our Water Destiny. for related info
New Mexico Water Planning Regions and Contacts
Jemez Y Sangre Water Planning Council
Estancia Basin Water Planning Committee
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"...Our use of ground water reserves has allowed us to ignore our extremely limited water income, and obscured the true state of our meager water accounts. We've been living off our savings, savings that in many cases took thousands of years to accumulate."
--Natural Capitalism, 1989s
Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins
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