What have New Mexicans learned from the drought?
First, that in one of New Mexico’s worst droughts in the modern era, you’re better off living in one of New Mexico’s affluent Rio Grande Valley cities.
Second, that we lack the tools to rationally allocate water in times of scarcity. Actually, never mind “rationally.” We lack the tools, period.
Third, that rain is good.
I live around the corner from Altura Park, a lush Albuquerque triangle of trees and grass. According to fascinating data I recently got from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, we dumped 3.5 million gallons of water on the park in 2012 to keep it green for our morning walks and weekend soccer games. In the midst of serious drought (precipitation at my house over the last three years is 10 inches below average), it’s a little oasis. The taxpayers kicked in $8,378.30 for the water. (Thanks!)
But Altura Park is nothing. We put 245 million gallons of water on Albuquerque’s Arroyo del Oso Golf Course last year, at a cost of $331,839.97. That’s enough water to supply nearly 2,700 average Albuquerque single-family homes.
Last year and again this year, drought dropped the Rio Grande so low that Albuquerque resorted to pumping groundwater exclusively to meet our needs. Because the groundwater and the river are connected, every gallon we pump eventually reduces the Rio Grande by an identical gallon for future users in farms and cities downstream. The water isn’t free. We’re taking it from other users.
But our affluence is a buffer, at least in the short run. In the long run, with climate change depleting the region’s water supply, we should not take this for granted. But for now, as I rode past Altura Park on my bike Friday morning, I looked at the expanse of green and wondered, “What drought?”
While we city folk are doing fine, there’s a scrap under way up on the Rio Chama that illustrates the deeper problems.
With water low in the Chama in northern New Mexico, it looked like state officials and local water managers had a deal earlier this year to share shortages, rotating allocations among the acequias that withdraw water from the river to water crops on the valley floor. The Chama was looking like a success story: water users coming together to figure out how to share during the bad times.
That changed July 29 when David Ortiz, representing the Acequia de Chamita, filed a notice in federal court demanding a “priority call.”
Under New Mexico law, the first water users on a river have the highest priority water rights. When things run short, they’re supposed to get water while later arrivals are cut off. And the Acequia de Chamita is among the oldest water rights you’ll find, with a legally certified priority date of 1600.
Upstream from the Acequia de Chamita are water users who unquestionably came later. But the legal niceties to settle their priority dates and the amount they’re entitled to – the formal process known as “adjudication” – haven’t been completed. That means the state lacks the legal tools needed to curtail their use, and to make sure Ortiz and his fellow farmers, the folks with the senior rights, get their water.
It’s a problem repeated all over the state. On the Pecos, Carlsbad farmers with senior rights are going dry this year while their lower-priority neighbors upstream have plenty of water. And in Albuquerque, I can’t help but point out that valley farms that faced shortages this year have been here a lot longer than Altura Park or Arroyo del Oso Golf Course.
In other words, the legal mechanism established in the New Mexico Constitution for protecting water users’ property rights and allocating in times of shortage is dysfunctional.
The New Mexico Supreme Court, in a water rights decision last month, poked the state’s legislative and executive branches with what amounted to a legal sharp stick for their failure to come to grips with the problem: “We urge our Legislature to be diligent in the exercise of its constitutional authority over – and responsibility for – the appropriation process. We equally urge the State Engineer to fulfill its superintending responsibility by applying priority administration for the protection of senior water users.”
And then, lucky us, it started raining.
The burst of monsoon storms since early July has been far from enough water to end three years’ accumulated drought, but it’s put off some water management reckoning. Farm water ditches from Sandoval to Socorro counties are running full. The Rio Grande, which was nearly dry through Albuquerque during the first week of July, is running again. City residents apparently cut back on the garden watering. Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority use for July was down 15 percent from the same month last year.
On the Acequia de Chamita, passions have cooled. “Because of the recent rains,” Ortiz told me last week, “we’re not going to be seeking a priority call at this time.”