For winter vacation, I spent two weeks in a place in Guatemala where people just don’t think about water, at least not in terms of scarcity. In the villages around Lago de Atitlán, Central America’s deepest lake, pumps pull water straight out of the vast caldera, and hoses and taps run freely while streams trickle more water in, even during the dry season.
It’s hard to say how the traditional Mayan communities that surround the lake truly feel about wealthy ex-pats and hoteliers, and their endless desire for more and more green, non-native grasses but, at the moment, it’s still a good alternative to the brutal civil war that only ended in 1996.
From the tourist view, it’s a tropical paradise full of lush flowers, dense greenery and terraced gardens, all kept vibrant in the dry winters through liberal application of water. Suck it out of the lake and hose down whatever seems like it would look better wetter. After all, not only is water abundant, it’s damn close to free.
Of course, much of the water trickling into the lake during the dry season is actually sewage. Seems logical enough for most individual houses in small villages to pull clean water in from the lake and push the dirty water just a little further out into the lake. Of course, that doesn’t really mean the water stays clean. And then there are all those villages on the hill that just channel the dirty water down the aptly named “rio negro,” a cement-lined ditch that drains straight to the shore of the lake. Plus, the lake’s largest settlement lost its sewage treatment plant when Hurricane Stan ravaged the area, and it’s still not fixed. So some curious algae are blooming these days.
If you’re wealthy, you run a pretty involved water-filtration system. If you’re not, you filter through a clay pot in a five gallon bucket or rely on your traditional Mayan fortitude, which never—traditionally—dealt with so much crap. You don’t clean your produce with all that abundant water.
Lush and abundant, yes, but Guatemala is still an impoverished, struggling nation with incredibly insufficient infrastructure. What we seem to forget in the United States—Santa Fe included—is that infrastructure is what separates modern, industrialized nations from impoverished, developing nations. It’s not cultural savvy, it’s not fashionable eyewear and sports cars—it’s simply infrastructure.
So how is it that at least four Santa Fe city councilors are hemming and hawing about water-rate increases that will help pay for the Buckman Direct Diversion Project?
The $216 million price tag can catch in one’s throat at a time when it’s a stretch for plenty of people to finance a used car, but Santa Fe has a water problem that’s not—at this point—going to be solved in any other way.
The City Council is scheduled to consider the water-rate increase (which will fund needed improvements in addition to BDDP) on Wednesday, Jan. 14. But why hold the meeting at all?—we can predict the outcome. A few councilors, who will make themselves obvious enough during the hearing, will decry raising rates for their constituents and make vague allegations about how the project could have been handled better in the past if only this or that (translation: “If I had been in charge”). This is politics. This is about re-election or running for mayor. Finally, the rate increase will be passed because there really is no viable alternative and because the mayor will break a tie in favor of the increase.
What could happen, in a better-governed Santa Fe, is the entire Council could go into the hearing unified and help explain to the public why a tough decision like this needs to be universally supported. The Council could even explain that we still won’t be paying the actual value of the water we’re getting. The Council could explain that it’s time for Americans to start paying the true price of what we consume and that it needs to begin with small communities because energy corporations have too much lobbying power to allow it to happen at a federal level. The Council could explain that we’ll have to pay these costs by choosing to put money into infrastructure instead of greedily clinging to our money while we trample minimum-wage workers in a rush to buy a crappy plasma-screen television that, even on sale, represents nothing even similar to value. The Council could be unified in the truth that investing in infrastructure is never a bad investment.
But that would be leadership, which we’ve learned is less attractive to this Council (and most in recent memory) than personal posturing and vendetta bickering.
The citizens with the least money, whom some councilors will pretend to be defending when they argue against rate increases, are the citizens probably most aware that they are too poor to buy cheap. That old wisdom remains true today, and it applies to water as much—if not more than—as anything else.