Sometimes at night, I lie in bed and imagine the Rio Grande. I think about the smooth slink of water and the darkness of the bosque. Falling into sleep, my body recalls the feel of kayaking the river in late spring, before irrigation season has siphoned much of the snowmelt into ditches and canals. Bliss is the moment you find the deepest part of the channel and glide down the steady river.
For water managers, decision-makers, attorneys and water wonks, however, that same river causes its share of nightmares.
The Rio Grande runs from Colorado through New Mexico, then along the border of Texas and Mexico as it ekes its way toward the Gulf of Mexico. It supplies drinking water for millions of people in three states and two countries and also spills through ditches and acequias onto fields each season so farmers can grow alfalfa, chile, pecans and other crops. Its waters and the greenbelts they support are home to hundreds of wildlife species.
But the system is crumbling. And old models of management may no longer work.
Last August, 53 miles of the Rio Grande—the state’s largest river—dried. On the eastern side of the state, 30 miles of the second-largest river, the Pecos, dried. (How often do you see water in the Santa Fe River?) A group of irrigators is suing the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District for failing to deliver water to farmers.
And forget about endangered fish in the river. After more than $150 million and 10 years of Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Act Collaborative Program meetings, the silvery minnow’s numbers have plummeted. Last summer, Albuquerque had to revert to groundwater-pumping and temporarily mothball its four-year-old Drinking Water Project because of the Rio Grande’s low levels. (Santa Fe draws its water from four different sources of groundwater and surface water; it can likely handle drought for the next one to three years.) In places like Las Vegas, Romeroville and Chupadero, as well as communities in Eddy, Curry and Roosevelt Counties, underground and/or surface water supplies are disappearing. Oh, yeah, and another thing: Texas is suing New Mexico, saying that groundwater pumping by New Mexicans is sucking water from the Rio Grande—water that should legally head downstream to Texas.
Despite a few good snowstorms, the water supply projections are grim. Taken together, 2011 and 2012 were the warmest and driest two-year stretch since record-keeping began in New Mexico in the 19th century.
Reservoirs are low and muddy. In a month or two, you’ll likely see New Mexico’s farm fields in the air; without moisture from rain and snow to hold down topsoil, spring winds will send those sands sailing.
Are you still reading? (Cripes. I feel like resting my head on the desk.) Sorry. But this is the water reality in New Mexico. And it’s only going to get worse as temperatures continue to rise and precipitation patterns change.
And what is the state Legislature doing this session to address New Mexico’s water emergency? Not nearly enough. I guess since Gov. Bill Richardson declared 2007 “The Year of Water,” neither Gov. Susana Martinez nor the Legislature considers water supplies a great enough problem to try and tackle again.
Of course, water issues are complicated, and in New Mexico, they also involve the federal government, which built and maintains the infrastructure that allows farms and cities to even exist here in the desert. But states have an obligation to step up to the challenge. And there are models out there for New Mexico to consider.
In 2009, for instance, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for a special session to address California’s water crisis. The California Legislature passed the Delta Reform Act of 2009, which established new standards for groundwater monitoring and statewide water conservation, and created the Delta Stewardship Council. The council’s mission is to provide a more reliable water supply for California while at the same time protecting, restoring and enhancing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem. The delta is where the state’s two largest rivers meet—ecologically, it’s an important place—and it supplies water for millions of urban and agricultural users.
What’s most interesting about the council—which, like most things, probably isn’t perfect—is that its work is informed by science, rather than politics or power plays by water users. Council members rely on input from the science program and an independent science board—and use that unbiased information to make decisions related to water and the environment.
It took a crisis for California to implement the program that is actively seeking solutions to the state’s water-supply crisis, while also protecting the environment. It’s pretty clear that New Mexico is experiencing a crisis. After all, the climate has already changed. Now, New Mexicans need to decide if we’re smart enough to adapt.
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