It’s still amazing to me after all these years how the vast amusement park of the news can distract us so thoroughly from the most intimate life and death matters. Even when you say it directly — we are more interested in the freak shows of Trumpian politics than we are in the purity of our drinking water — the freak show sounds more interesting, especially when the dissembler in chief declares himself to be “a very stable genius.”
One can only hope, I guess, that the most important will one day become the most interesting too, in a macabre but absolute way.
If there’s anything we can depend on in our radically changing world, the one overwhelming certainty is that as climate change diminishes surface water, aquifers become the fresh water of last resort.
In the ever more arid Southwest, this water of last resort is alarmingly vulnerable to pollution and overuse.
With an extended drought of historically low snow packs, where most surface water comes from, and unpredictable rains, we will be forced to depend more and more on water gained from drilling. Many places are already doing so — taking water from underground reserves that can be recharged by natural methods when surface waters are plentiful, but that are always depleted faster than they recover. Sometimes you can bank surface water by putting it into the aquifer. Any time you can save something for a dusty day, that’s a good thing. But there’s no compound interest on wet water.
In the Southwest, this indispensible water of last resort is made especially vulnerable because we know so little about it. It’s hard to make generalizations about groundwater because it conforms to idiosyncratic geological realities that are unique and specific to every place water collects.
In an overheated, climate-changed world, our ignorance about groundwater and our long history of polluting it might put every city in the Southwest in an untenable state of hapless looming scarcity —from Tucson, Phoenix, El Paso, Las Cruces and Albuquerque to Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Denver, not to mention towns in West Texas.
The safety and availability of clean groundwater is the single most important issue we face today. Nothing matches it, not poverty, homelessness, social and economic injustice, not immigration, not crime, not anything. Without good drinking water, a sustainable city, an adaptive city, a survival city, even just staying the same is out of the question. Plentiful clean water is the first necessity, and literally no one can live, much less flourish, without it. That’s so obvious it should go without saying.
Until 2008, Albuquerque was in a unique position for a major city, relying solely on its aquifer for its drinking water. In fact, more than 90 percent of New Mexico’s population was aquifer-dependent and still largely is. In 2008, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and others started drinking water diverted from the Colorado River, owing to provisions in the Colorado Compact of 1922. But with the Colorado River itself in a state of prolonged drought, we may, much sooner than later, be forced to rely on our groundwater again.
It seems unbelievable that even with our dependence on groundwater, only about six or seven of New Mexico’s 36 aquifer basins have been extensively characterized. And what’s even more astonishing to me is that we have allowed our aquifers to be extensively polluted. So if surface water diminishes significantly, which it is already doing, Albuquerque will have to get serious about understanding in detail the placement, nature and amount of polluted groundwater in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. Over the last twenty years of analysis, it seems clear that there is much more polluted groundwater than just the horrendous Kirtland Air Force Spill or the two major Superfund sites in the South Valley. In a 1995 report, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) declared there were over a 150 groundwater contamination “events” in Bernalillo County that have polluted “vast amounts of groundwater, its quality degraded to an extent that it affects its usefulness as drinking water.” The report noted that 20 of those contamination events should be registered as Superfund sites.
It think it’s time for Albuquerque to have an ongoing, intense public discussion on the state of our aquifer and then tax ourselves to provide the funds to analyze the exact locations and characteristics of our polluted groundwater and find out how much it will cost and how long it will take to make all of it potable once again. I fear the amount will be staggering.
Once groundwater goes, all that’s left is importation of more surface water — an impossibility now that every drop is over-allocated to quench the thirst of every major city in our region — or desalinization of deep brackish water of which New Mexico is rumored to have a vast supply. Desalination in New Mexico, however, would cause massive amounts of salt waste laced with arsenic dust. Because you can’t leave that stuff lying around, you have spend large sums to store it.
What makes this so daunting, in my eyes, is that Albuquerque is connected to every other big city via the Colorado Compact and that every one of those cities has the same or worse groundwater pollution — from military bases, manufacturing, petroleum pumping and fracking, urban runoff, mining and landfills to mention just the obvious sources.
Every city in the Southwest will be hunting for water. The competition will get mean and brutal. Rich cities and states will win over poorer places. And every place will be in the hunt for funding to make its groundwater drinkable and to augment it with the costly process of turning toilet water and gray water into tap water and garden water. And every homeowner will be saddled with the expense and worry of installing new water lines to accommodate the water of different and often unsavory sources.
This is what climate change means from California to Texas and Tucson to Denver and all points in between. Is climate change going to reverse itself, or go into a century-long cooling phase? I doubt it. Is it a reasonable scenario that cities and states will compete fiercely for whatever water they can find? I think it is. Will all major cities in the Southwest have to face the hidden problem of their polluted groundwater? No doubt. Will the rich places and the prepared places (rich or poor) fare better than the impoverished and unprepared? How could they not?
The scenario is a nasty one. But it isn’t doomsday, fantastic or unreasonable. Pollution, drought, competition will throw the water world of the Southwest into cutthroat turmoil. And, of course, politics will play its part. The arbiter of last resort when it comes to conflicts between states over water is the highly politicized U.S. Supreme Court.
I don’t think I’m being an alarmist when I say that I think it’s time to grow up and take responsibility for our water. Other places in our region are. Others aren’t. We don’t want to count ourselves among those that are stupidly optimistic, flatfooted and oblivious to rational probabilities.
There’s only one thing worse than climate change: being thoughtless and unprepared to meet it.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it