You probably saw that the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA) released its new 100-year plan called WATER 2120: Securing Our Water Future. It came to most of us in the form of a four-page flier full of amorphous high hopes and a few generically good ideas.
The flier’s headline reads “Water for the Next Century: Where will it come from? Will there be enough? A new 100-year water plan tackles the hard questions.”
The fact that it doesn’t mention any hard questions at all, nor give any specifics to speak of its water strategies, shouldn’t take away from the mild optimism one might feel from knowing that the ABCWUA is indeed thinking about our water future, which is a bit more than one can say about the State of New Mexico itself at the moment.
The state’s updated water plan is still in suspended animation, from what I can tell. Sixteen water regional plans have been completed with great devotion, time, and personal wherewithal by local residents across the state. But to what end so far? Doing anything, much planning for the future, seems to be an anathema to the Republican bureaucracy assembled by Governor Martinez, and that includes the office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC).
According to a May 2017 report (PDF)from the Utton Transboundary Resource Center at UNM, that was prepared at the request of the ISC, a state water plan was completed in 2004 and has had reviews in 2008 and 2013. “The ISC is now seeking clarification about the scope of the legal obligation to update the State Water Plan.” The Utton Center is one of the major water think tanks in the West.
That the ISC needs guidance to interpret the legislation that requires one of its major ongoing tasks is astonishing to me, and another example of Republican do-nothing foot-dragging that has crippled New Mexico for the last seven years.
The Utton Center informed the ISC that the Legislature requires that the “State Water Plan be reviewed, updated, and amended at least every five years in response to changing conditions. Both the 2008 and 2013 State Water Plan Reviews identified conditions that have changed since 2003….” That review identified changing conditions such “as awareness of climate change,” population growth, “settlement of water rights adjudications,” among others.
That the Republican party and its operatives in New Mexico don’t believe that climate change is even real gives us a clue as to why the updated State Water Plan is foundering and why the ISC, a major power in New Mexico’s water world, is uncertain about its obligations. In clarifying that question, the Utton report gives the ICS examples of water plans in Colorado, Montana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and other states. This is valuable information for all of us.
The ABCWUA “Water for the Next Century” flier looks pretty good when compared to the inactivity gumming up the workings of the state water bureaucracy. The plan says that it “builds upon the success of earlier strategies,” continuing to emphasize conservation and “wise management of the regional underground aquifer while exploring innovative (and cost-effective) supply alternatives.” The plan reports that while its ideas will “require investment in new infrastructure (for expanded storage capacity, for a example), it does not require new or additional rate increases from implementation.” I can’t imagine that over a hundred year period water rates will not increase because of this plan. It’s ludicrous on the face of it.
The ABCWUA strategy offers tried and true approaches successful so far in Tucson, Phoenix, and other cities. They include trying to drop per capita water use to 110 gallons a day, that’s a 20 gallon drop from current use in 100 years. Surely we can do better than that. The city and country hopes to add to its “supply” of water not from new sources, but from recycling, aquifer storage of unused river water allocations, and “non potable and reuse recycling for turf irrigation.” It says as well, opaquely, that “eventually recycling water for drinking through an indirect potable reuse system will also contribute to the local supply.” This means we’ll be drinking “toilet to tap” water down the road. Los Angeles is already working on pilot black water recycling projects that supply more than 45,000 homes. El Paso has an immense black water project under construction. The flier isn’t the whole story and there’s a downloadable report to back it up and a short video that explains it.
What’s troubling about the ABCWUA flier is that the really “hard questions” are not only not answered they are not even asked. This is probably because of what the flier calls the Water Plan’s “broad support,” which includes NAIOP (the Commercial Real Estate Development Association), the Business Water Task Force, Albuquerque Economic Development, the New Mexico Homebuilders Association, the Economic Forum, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the Nature Conservancy, and the Rio Grande Water Fund (Wildfire and Water Source Protection Fund). Where are all the other myriad public interest and environmental groups and NGOs interested in New Mexico water management? I guess they didn’t buy into the plan.
So, what are the hard questions that the plan fails to mention? Four major ones come to mind:
What happens to Albuquerque’s share of the Colorado River, which now supplies, according to the ABCWUA plan, two thirds of our drinking water, if the Colorado River basin’s 18-year drought worsens and extends over 30 or 40 years?
What happens if the extended Colorado drought requires us to depend solely on the aquifer of the Middle Rio Grande Valley, as we used to do prior to 2008? Will we confront what I consider the most pressing water problem in our region – underground water pollution, such as the 24 million gallon of jet fuel “spill” threatening the sweet spot of the city aquifer near Kirtland Air Force Base, and perhaps as many as 50 other lesser contamination sites in Bernalillo County?
What happens to our storage infrastructure needs if the federal government can’t or won’t fork up funds for local improvements, owing to a stingy disposition or more likely it being drained by cleanups from the increasing menace of hurricanes and the catastrophes they cause up and down the Atlantic coast?
What happens when our drought deepens as warming accelerates in the Southwest, already one of the fastest warming places in the country?
A city can’t hide from climate change and from the pollution of its ground water. They won’t go away. And, really, neither of them can be fully fixed. Polluted ground water can be cleaned but it costs a fortune to make it drinkable again, if that’s even possible. And all we can hope to do now, after decades of deceit and denial, is to make the impact of climate change no worse than it already is.
If the Colorado River can’t supply the vast amounts of water it owes to California and the other states in the Colorado River Compact, New Mexico, weak in political clout and money, though not necessarily in legal gumption, might well be forced by the other states to reduce its share of the Colorado River water though the San Juan Chama project. That’s not by any means a far fetched speculation given the 100-scope of the ABCWUA Plan.
Why can’t we have a water plan that faces reality for what it is? That owns up to the dire possibilities and gets serious about “sustainability” and “survivability” in this beautiful if precarious city in the desert Southwest? We can’t and won’t, I think, because many of our leaders think realty is seriously bad for business. And so it goes … from bad to worse.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it