Charles Darwin read John Milton’s Paradise Lost four or five times as he journeyed around the southern hemisphere on the HMS Beagle gathering insights that would lead to his theory of evolution. It was inspiring for me to read of Darwin’s great adventure again at the start of the mayoral election runoff in Albuquerque between progressive Democrat Tim Keller and Tea Party Republican Dan Lewis. Cities like everything else evolve. And they often succumb to temptations that ruin their chances for competitive success. Darwin and Milton provide perfect metaphors for Albuquerque’s immediate future.
The outcome of this election will tell us if we have a chance to thwart the metaphor of Paradise Lost or fall into the temptation of glossing over profound environmental problems, like our polluted aquifer and the devil’s bargain we’ve been making with the Air Force over the largest jet fuel spill in the nation at Kirtland Base.
Albuquerque has always banked on a ready underground water supply. But what if we’ve allowed it to become so polluted it’s no longer the reliable source it has always been? What if our reliance on the Colorado River to augment our drinking water supply proves to be pie in the sky after all given a 19-year drought in the Colorado’s watershed, and we are forced to drink groundwater again? Will Albuquerque proper end up like its East Mountain suburbs with an increasingly compromised aquifer, as Laura Paskus wrote so insightfully about recently in the New Mexico Political Report? Will we continue to pump water for outlandish growth to keep up with the Joneses, struggling and failing to emulate Phoenix and Denver while losing our real, and for many of us, paradisiac identity? Or will we find a way to become a paradise regained?
As cities grow they either progress by adapting to the changing demands of their time and place, or they seize up, become rigid and inflexible, and remain in denial about the reality of evolving new conditions. They can get grandiose, as well, and aspire to be something they are not and eventually fail and fall far short of their real promise. Albuquerque is at that evolutionary crossroads. Trying to become a stunted version of a megacity on the Rio Grande binds us to failure. Working to become again a conservation-minded, intimate city where people feel at home, rather than an anyplace where nobody feels they belong, that’s the road to livable progress here.
Albuquerque’s traditional identity as a medium-sized, semi-rural, multicultural, New Mexico college town with rich employment possibilities in the hard sciences and their technological offshoots, in human services, in modern urban agriculture, and locally relevant architecture and development is still at least a partial reality. But we can’t even begin to fully regain our sense of place, redeeming it from the Californication and its attendant poverty, crime, and homelessness that have all but engulfed us, if we don’t have sufficient water. We need safe water, not for frivolous growth and manufacture, but for solidifying our sense of ourselves as actively evolving our city into a place that calls forth in us, more and more, a feeling of querencia, a deep love and respect for the land, water, and people of the Middle Rio Grande Valley and New Mexico.
Water, not crime; water, not jobs; water, not “growth,” must be our first priority.
The Kirtland Air Force Base spill, an ever-present danger discovered in 1999, is both a symbol of where we are at the moment — a compromised, directionless, smoke-blowing kind of place with virtually no public discourse on local matters — and a dire threat to the health and livelihood of our people. The pollution plume is precariously close to the sweet spot of our entire aquifer, where the most productive wells in the city are located. Containing and cleaning up that contamination is the single most important issue of our city ‘s future.
But as water activist Dave McCoy told me recently, “It seems some politicians think it’s unpatriotic to challenge the Air Force on the massive contamination of Albuquerque’s ground water with toxic chemicals. There needs to be an independent review of the planning for clean up of the toxic chemicals from the 24-million-gallon spill of jet fuel and aviation gas into the drinking water aquifer. Albuquerque is Flint, Michigan.”
McCoy is the long-time executive director of Citizen Action NM, which serves as a watchdog not only on the Kirtland spill but also the Sandia Labs radioactive mixed waste landfill near the southern edge of the Sunport.
Federal studies have shown over the years that the middle Rio Grande aquifer is contaminated with dozens of pollution sites, enough for at least 20 more Superfund sites than the four it already has. (Orphaned Land)
In a recent letter to NM Senator Tom Udall, McCoy expressed with clarity what many of us have been worrying about. Among his charges are that there’s “a lack of genuine public transparency to avoid exposure of incompetence” on the part of the Air Force, that Kirtland Air Force Base is “setting the stage to get a technical waver to not perform full remediation,” and that “changed aquifer conditions from a rapidly rising water table” are spreading the contamination in ways that an “out-of-date defective groundwater monitoring and soil sampling” system isn’t accurately detecting. McCoy recommends that “a thorough, independent review should be performed by more than just one person for the fuel spill. Independent review by a panel of experts is warranted and often performed for a remediation project of this magnitude and expense….”
McCoy is not alone in his concerns. New Mexico Congresswoman and gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham said a number of years ago that cleaning up the Kirtland Spill should be the NM Congressional delegation’s top priority. Even the Martinez administration’s Environment Department expressed concern in a letter (PDF) to Kirtland Base leadership in August this year about “incomplete characterization of the dissolved-phase groundwater plume” regarding Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s (ABCWUA) successful efforts beginning to recharge the aquifer. The Environment Department also charges that the clean up is operating on “technically incomplete and biased estimates” of the severity of the spill and that there is still an “incomplete delineation” of the spread and depth of the jet fuel contamination of groundwater near Kirtland. And this comes more than 18 years after the discovery of the spill.
The ABCWUA, in a review of recent Air Force remediation plans, expressed concerns that dangerous jet fuel additives were migrating farther and faster than had been predicted.
And here we are, weeks away from electing a new mayor. I’m endorsing Tim Keller because I think he’s the best chance we’ve had in a long time, since perhaps the days in the later 1970s of Mayor David Rusk, to give Albuquerque a running chance to clean up its pollution — both chemical and political — and fulfill its promise as a great New Mexican place to live, one that’s rich in civility, in charity, and in a mature and responsible regard for water as the fundamental prerequisite for a good life, or any life for that matter, in the arid Southwest.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image derived from Alan & Flora Bottling)