Imagine that you are a passenger in a car being driven down the interstate highway at 80 mph. A quarter mile ahead you see that the road has been washed out by a flash flood. The driver has seen the washout for at least a minute but shows no signs of putting his foot on the brake or taking the off-ramp.
This is a good analogy for the water situation in New Mexico. We have known for a couple of decades that a series of crises are impending, but almost nothing has changed in the way the state administers water. We know, for example, that since the mid-1970s the average temperature in New Mexico has increased by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit and by the end of this century it is predicted to increase by an additional 5 to 6 degrees. Heat dries out the landscape, and thus it should be no surprise that flow in the Rio Grande has reached the average value for the 20th Century only three times in the 18 years since 2000. The Bureau of Reclamation has projected that by the end of this century, the average flow of the Rio Grande will be only half of what it was in the 20th Century.
What plan does the State have to deal with the fallout? The answer is no plan.
On top of this inexorable decline in the availability of water, the Rio Grande also faces the Texas lawsuit in the Supreme Court over the Rio Grande Compact. If the verdict is negative, the state will have to send more of the shrinking supply south over the Texas border.
What preparations have been made to deal with this contingency, or to ensure New Mexico’s continued deliveries to Elephant Butte of the required annual amounts? None.
In the southeastern part of the state, the famous Ogallala aquifer has either already been sucked dry or will be within 10 years. There will be no groundwater to supply either the city of Clovis or future industry that might replace the vanished farms. This outcome is due to the state lacking any sustainability criterion for groundwater management, but no changes have been made in state law to address the lack.
The New Mexico water code was originally passed by the Territorial Legislature in 1907. The principal concern was to promote rapid development and distribution of irrigation water from federal projects. The current concerns are vastly different, but we’re still using the 1907 water law. It’s a little like trying to protect intellectual property on the internet using 19th Century laws copyrighting sheet music.
This year, finally, three bills have been introduced in the Legislature to try to bring some parts of New Mexico water administration into the 21st Century. House Bill 174 proposes establishing a modern set of rules for ensuring Rio Grande Compact compliance in the Middle Rio Grande and addressing shortages. HB 186 directs the N.M. Interstate Stream Commission to complete serious water planning based on facts, science and climate-change projections. HB 187 enables the Utton Transboundary Center at UNM to assess the current water laws and propose changes to deal with the changed circumstances.
These bills were not written by any vested interests but rather are the result of a grassroots citizen effort. Copies of the bills and explanations are available from WaterAssembly.org.
Like any efforts proposing water-policy change, these bills are bound to be controversial. They will certainly evolve as they go through the legislative process. But they deserve the public’s support because they are the first serious attempt in many decades to deal with New Mexico’s impending water crises. Like any smart driver, New Mexico needs to look forward and steer around the dangers. These bills are a great alternative to continuing to race blindly over the edge.