I’m always interested to get in the mail the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s “Water Quality Report” brochure. But I’m also usually disappointed by what I read and what I don’t read. And this time I’m particularly irked by the rosy nature of the report. It just doesn’t meet what author Jared Diamond might call the “common sense” test. The ABCWUA takes an “expert” tone, something almost scientific and then reaches an “implausible conclusion contradicting common sense,” as Diamond would say.
Perhaps I’m expecting too much, but I’d rather see the annual drinking water report reflect reality — both its positive sides and its grim potential — more than kowtow to mere boomer optimism. By glossing over major water problems that could affect our drinking water very soon, the report has an unfortunate aura of junk mail from a privatized water company selling good news. And that’s a shame because for all its drawbacks the report is a useful document. It shows us how our water system works. It makes us aware that what we take for granted as an almost natural process of supplying drinking water on demand is really a vast engineered system with complicated interconnections and multiple technologies that, so far, have worked extraordinarily well for most of us.
The report seems to assume we’re going to get all the surface water we’ll need in the future and that we won’t have to rely solely on our aquifer again, as we did up to 2008 when we started drinking water from the Colorado River via the San Juan Chama project. And though it mentions the clean-up of groundwater contamination and the Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill, it doesn’t mention how little we know about the many potential Superfund sites in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, or anything about the roiling controversy of many years over how the Kirtland jet fuel spill and its poisonous content are being cleaned up. We don’t read anything about how much it will cost to clean up the 24 million gallons of jet fuel, how long it will take or even exactly where and how big the massive underground plume actually is.
The water authority itself has recently said that a new plan for clean up is irresponsible and that current methods may not work. A recent memo (PDF) from the ABCWUA to the New Mexico Environment Department states, “The Water Authority is unclear on what data is being used to justify the downshift to the passive monitoring for natural attenuation.” Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins recently stated, “Clearly, there’s a change in the focus on natural attenuation.” The time frames on such attenuations are in the thousands of years. Are the long delays, procrastinations, and snail’s pace in clean up since 1999, when the jet fuel spill was discovered, a reflection of the Air Force’s and the New Mexico Environment Department’s increasing preference to “natural attenuation”? Is that something we can live with? Can we keep the poison fuel away from our well fields for millennia? Does that sound rational?
The assumption of a plentiful water supply leaves me unsettled because, from my perspective, I can see water rationing in Albuquerque in the not-very-distant future, owing to a protracted drought in the Colorado River basin, New Mexico’s junior status in the Colorado River Compact and a lawsuit with Texas over surface water flows of the Rio Grande that has disturbing implications about our river.
And the Report’s optimism also clouds over common-sense awareness — like touting aquifer recharge efforts in a time of extreme drought in our region. How can you recharge an aquifer in any meaningful way with no rain, little snowpack, and imported surface water from the Colorado River in danger of being taken away from us owing to the nineteen-year climate change drought in the watersheds that seven Southwestern states depend on, including us?
Some experts read the Colorado River Compact as giving “junior” status to the states that basically produce the water — the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — and “senior” status to the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada. What that means is that in times of scarcity, Lower Basin states get their water first, and Upper Basin states might have to curtail their usage to make that happen. And what makes matters even more precarious is that Arizona has junior status to California and in times of extreme scarcity would have to wait until California gets all its share of Colorado river water first. It seems likely to me that Arizona would urge the federal government to invoke provisions in the Colorado Compact detrimental to New Mexico’s interests.
If New Mexico loses its lawsuit with Texas, which is now at the Supreme Court, our water supplies could be seriously jeopardized. In a ludicrous irony, Texas is suing us for pumping too much groundwater for agriculture south of Elephant Butte dam. Texas argues that pumping groundwater depletes the flow of the surface water of the Rio Grande, robbing Texas of its fair share as outlined in the Rio Grande Compact. The irony is that while New Mexico water law recognizes the connection between groundwater and surface water, Texas water law does not recognize such a connection. It seems archly hypocritical on the face of it, but the suit is in federal court, as it must be, so the absurdity of Texas suing New Mexico for violating a natural condition which it, itself, does not recognize to be the truth, will probably be overlooked by the conservative court that appears to be leaning toward rich Texas over impoverished New Mexico anyway. And so it goes.
Finally, the report’s rosy view doesn’t allude to anything having to do with the cost, technology and timeframe of identifying and characterizing all the groundwater contamination in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. And it has nothing to say about climate change forcing us to live only on our aquifer again, which is, by some accounts, pretty much around the corner. And living on the aquifer means that it’s going to have to be cleaned up as fast and as thoroughly as it can be, after we spend vast sums trying to find out exactly how dirty it actually is.
The specter of draconian water restrictions is frightening. For close to a decade the city of Las Vegas, NM has been under some degree of water rationing due to drought in the Gallinas River watershed, leaky dams and a rickety water infrastructure all around it. Many of the city’s beautiful elms, cottonwoods, sycamores and willows were killed off on its residential streets. People were putting up signs in their windows reassuring their neighbors that the front yard flowers were watered with gray water they had saved or bought from the city. Life was hard, and doing business harder. What might happen to Albuquerque’s gorgeous urban forest mandated by the street tree ordinance (PDF) and zoning requirements to plant trees in and around parking lots? Could we be left with thousands upon thousands of dead trees, and a danger of urban wild fire?
Once many years ago, former governor Bruce King said to me with reassuring certainty, “Oh V.B., there will always be enough water.” Sounds like his ghost wrote the ABCWUA drinking water report. I’m sure it’s the same message that boosters sold to the residents of Mexico City, Melbourne, Sao Paulo and Cape Town. They have run out of water, or come close to it, not only because of their super-sized populations, but also because they didn’t really think they had to plan ahead, unable to accept the possibility of actually running out of water.
No place on earth wants that to happen to them, or to come even close to having it happen. But in an era of climate change in the American Southwest, it’s potentially in everyone’s future now.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it