In the desert, more than most places, we are constantly reminded that without a clean, sustainable supply of water, we could not survive. The challenge of meeting the growing demands for water with the same limited supply, and how we meet that challenge, is likely to define the future of our Land of Enchantment.
Most New Mexican cities and towns have barely scratched the surface of water conservation efforts but, even if they had, efficiency alone might not prevent the consequences of too much demand for not enough water. Those consequences include:
- Intensifying pressure to transfer water from farms, ranches and smaller communities to thirsty, growing cities, thereby draining the lifeblood from our rural areas;
- escalating legal costs as we engage in expensive and risky litigation with neighboring states; and
- ever-diminishing river flows, deteriorating streamside habitats, and more fish and wildlife in danger of extinction.
This is not an exhaustive list, but all of these have occurred in the past, are still happening now, and will inevitably continue in the future. Water policy is extremely complicated, and the complexity is exacerbated by the conflicts and emotion that get tangled up in almost every policy discussion.
So what can we do?
An excellent primer on New Mexico’s water challenges and the available solutions is “Taking Charge of Our Water Destiny”, which you can download here. Although the report is now nearly 10 years old, we have made such little progress that we still face the same problems. But that means the same solutions are available to us as well.
Examples of actions that promote healthy rivers and a clean, sustainable supply of water for New Mexicans:
In 2010, after more than two years of public process and hearings, the state Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) officially designated about 700 miles of perennial rivers and streams, 29 lakes and more than 4,900 acres of wetlands in federal wilderness areas as “Outstanding National Resource Waters.” The designation means that these critical water sources will receive the highest level of protection from activities that would degrade water quality.
In 2008 the Richardson Administration adopted the “pit rule” for the oil and gas industry, without a doubt one of the Administration’s more contentious actions. In adopting the rule, the Oil Conservation Commission (OCC) set standards for the treatment and disposal of waste from oil and gas operations. The rule is remarkably effective. In the fifteen years prior to the pit rule’s adoption, industry self-reported 421 cases of groundwater contamination caused by oil and gas waste disposal pits, which account for more than half of all cases of groundwater contamination reported by the industry. Since adoption of the pit rule, there has not been a single reported case of groundwater contamination from an oil or gas waste pit. However, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, both representing industry, requested revisions to the rule from the Oil Conservation Commission. The Commission held hearings to consider those requests in May and June of 2012. At this writing, a final decision on the potential reversal of the pit rules is expected in September 2012.
Example of action that threatens our rivers and water resources:
In the heart of America’s first designated wilderness area, the last free-flowing river in our state, which supports habitat for myriad fish and wildlife, is threatened. Anglers, rafters, birders, hikers, and residents and tourists of all stripes treasure the Gila River. But, some parties are making a strong push to build a dam or “diversion project” that would impair the flow of the river, threaten fish and wildlife, and cost taxpayers a fortune for an unnecessary, wasteful and harmful project, a boondoggle at best.