Those of us who live and recreate in the arid Southwest have always faced serious water supply challenges. Struggling to survive through endlessly recurring droughts, we understand how precious water is to our communities, livelihoods and economy.
Today, our survival anxieties are compounded by ominous climate trends: shorter winters, declining snowpack and diminishing streamflow. There’s little doubt that water conservation and management will assume even greater importance in New Mexico in the years ahead, which is why we need forward-thinking, bipartisan policy solutions.
In 2009, under the sponsorship of then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Congress passed the Secure Water Act, creating the West-wide WaterSMART program. Under WaterSMART, local water managers, municipal utilities and irrigation districts became eligible for funding to support an array of local water conservation projects, including water use efficiency, water reuse and recycling, technological innovation (e.g., desalination and precision irrigation), sharing and marketing of water rights, and watershed restoration.
All of these conservation strategies aim to achieve a measure of water security in an insecure world.
It’s gratifying to river conservationists like myself that WaterSMART also recognizes the need to protect healthy river flows and ecosystems. Here in New Mexico, WaterSmart is helping to fund the Rio Chama Flow Project, which in part restructures dam releases to serve the river’s multitude of wildlife and habitats, alongside the traditional imperative of securing water for communities and irrigators.
A Basin Studies program was launched under WaterSMART and one of the studies funded, the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, has contributed many new ideas on how to stretch the dwindling water supplies of the Colorado River system, whose millions of users are clearly confronting a future crisis. Among other achievements, the Colorado Basin Study gathered visionary ideas from each water-using sector (both consumptive, like cities, and non-consumptive, like recreation) and a variety of constituents to boost water supplies in Lake Mead, where stored water is approaching all-time lows.
Under WaterSMART, a Rio Grande Basin Study also received funding. Thus, those of us who depend on New Mexico’s great river will have the opportunity to come together, and harness our own unique abilities and resources to secure our water future.
While the results of this cooperative approach are still to be fully realized, surely the recognition of our mutual dependence on the river offers hope that collaborative conservation can help the region “tighten its belt” in the face of a manifestly drier future.
It’s important that Congress supports federal initiatives, such as WaterSMART, that bring people together on the local, state and regional levels to solve these looming challenges. It’s encouraging that Congress recently passed – and the president signed into law – the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act, which helps the seven states in the Colorado Basin (including New Mexico) implement plans for conserving water and shoring up supplies.
We must build upon this success and ensure our elected leaders support policy that will sustain this Basin for generations to come. Federal funds can be deployed for the benefit of all taxpayers and water users, including by creating ecological resiliency in the face of drought with the kind of stream restoration being done on the Rio Chama.
We all depend on our rivers and water, and the chain of life they support – these are things that we cannot bear to lose.
Working together is our best hope for securing those precious resources for the future.
Steve Harris is an owner of the river outfitter Far-Flung Adventures, director of the river conservation group Rio Grande Restoration and a water user in Pilar, New Mexico.