In addressing the issue of water in the West we must be willing to address that prior solutions have not addressed the core problem. Today, we continue to base solutions through increasing supplies. In the past, it has been simply a matter of addressing increased demand for water by increasing the supply combined with conservation. Reservoirs and dams were built with wide surface areas resulting in huge evaporative losses, aquifers were pumped to the maximum, urban water conservation was voluntary and private wells were unmetered. Supply was there. Sometimes new sources, such as Owens Lake in California, or the San Juan /Chama diversion in NM were piped to urban centers to increase supply.
Supply solutions are still available. Desalination of ocean waters, dredging reservoirs and deep aquifer drilling are playing a new role in the discussions as the old sources dry up or prove unable to address increased demand. New deep water, low surface area, high altitude reservoirs can be built. Brackish water can still be tapped from deep aquifers and desalinated. Water pumped in rural areas with low demand can still be piped to urban areas. In other words, there remains the capacity to continue to address water management and administration in the same old way.
Current droughts in the West have raised new concerns. Is the drought caused by climate change? Is the drought a periodic historical episode of decreasing regional precipitation? What about the new risks of geological subsidence, ocean water intrusion into the water table and the reduction of groundwater flows to surface waters? These issues raise their raise their heads as aquifers are mined and groundwater levels decline and precipitation decrease.
That being said, it is worth our while to compare the current financial crisis with the impending water crisis that has already manifested in many areas of the US. For years, business as usual for urban residents has been to assume that municipal governments and state governments are up to the task. The water budgets of our regions have been overextended based on presumed maintenance of water supply from aquifers and surface water flows. Decisions are made based on short-term supply projections that no longer stand the test of reality. Water users are not included in the decision-making processes. Water planning is often projected as an ancillary process removed from the actual political decisions by governmental entities.
In the Middle Rio Grande, there are two of the largest cities in New Mexico, Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. In the past these cities supplied over 500,000 people solely from underground water supplies, now they have added water from the San Juan/Chama diversion. Combined these cities use 151,000 acre ft. per year. Agriculture getting its supply of water from the Rio Grande River consumes 298,340 acre ft. per year. In the Water Supply Study Phase III prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Interstate Stream Commission it was summarized: “Both Base Case and Sensitivity model results indicate that water demands in the Middle Rio Grande region currently exceed the available renewable water supply by a minimum of 71,000 acre-feet per year (groundwater withdrawals that have not yet impacted the river), and perhaps by as much as 110,600 acre-feet per year. Despite that these results are accompanied by uncertainty as noted above, the analysis suggests that New Mexico faces significant challenges with respect to meeting both water demands in the Middle Rio Grande and Compact obligations in future years.”
In the Middle Rio Grande region of New Mexico water planning took on a significant character that was open and inclusive. The Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) approved a 50-year plan worked on for over 9 years by the Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly. The Assembly worked with the regional Water Resources Board of the Middle Region Council of Governments (MR COG) and maintained the direction and intent of the plan. It was approved by the 15 municipalities of the region, the regional water utility authority, the irrigators’ conservancy district and the flood control authorities of the two counties in the region, some with particular caveats included in their memoranda of agreement. Hundreds of individuals from environmental groups, advocacy groups, real estate interests, water managers of utilities, planners, administrators and specialists in hydrology and geo-hydrology have participated and actively engaged the communities in the region for input on recommendations and preferred scenarios.
As someone who worked for years with the Water Assembly in developing the regional water plan, the lesson struck me repeatedly that there is no water plan absent political and structural reform. The myriad of political entities, water management bodies, municipal governments, and administrative bodies function in their own worlds. The government of NM and municipalities are bound hand and foot to developers and real estate interests. Other states in the West are likewise bound to economic interests.
These challenges are the issues of election campaigns, the substance of policy decisions and duties of elected officials. It is within the ability of Green Party candidates to build a new public consensus as an integral component of its election activities. It is within the ability of advocacy groups and non-profits to begin to re-define their political priorities. It is time for Green candidates to address fundamental issues of structural reform of water administration and management and present a public process for regions. The EcoAction Committee of the Green Party of the United States is prepared to provide technical and policy support to all state Green parties, candidates and activists. It’s time for those who have hooked the future of the resource on candidates of the major parties to do a reality check regarding the fundamental issue of reform.
Water planning is not a luxury anymore. It is a requirement to provide consistent policies to guide future allocations and growth and development. There can be change but there lies no security in continuing business as usual. This bubble will also burst. Water is not an infinite resource and every new source has a bottom to it. Sustainable water management means establishing defined parameters for water use and allocations. It means having the science that predicts the consequences of given actions. It means consistency in the implementation of water policies that do not conflict with each other. It means developing pricing mechanisms that improve conservation but continue to provide public access for the aged, young and poor communities. Public Welfare statements need to prioritize regional water uses. Water budgets need to be enforced. And new allocations need to be made in the context of renewable supplies.
The age of unlimited growth is over economically and ecologically. We need to balance our water budgets as we need to balance our financial budgets. We need to save our resources, just as we need to save our money, as never before and take each new step cautiously. Pyramid schemes for new supplies will never provide us with the stability we need for the future.
Regional water planning provides us with the oversight we need. It provides the transparency in which users have input into the process and “skin” in the game. It empowers the science available to provide parameters to the policies that are being established. It enables representation that is qualified, specialized and reflective of the concerns of users. It begins from the realities we confront and looks to the future that we can create.