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Cooperation key as drought worsens

GHOST RANCH — Water, Steve Harris said Saturday afternoon, is for cooperatin’ over.

The 65-year-old river guide, one of the grand old men of New Mexico water, was riffing off the old saw that in the West, “Whiskey’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’ over.”

Often attributed to Mark Twain (though Twain seems never to have said it), the “fightin’ ” version of the aphorism seems appropriate in this year of drought and litigation over New Mexico water.

But Steve and I have long shared the view that the inaccurate attribution to Twain matches a deeper problem — that if we’re doing it right, water really is for cooperating over.

So when Steve months ago began talking about a workshop built around the theme of water cooperation, I was enthusiastic. As the Journal’s water beat reporter, I spend a lot of my time these days chronicling the fighting. But I remain fundamentally optimistic that it doesn’t have to be that way.

That said, after spending time last week on and around the lower Pecos River, I felt a bit like Steve, in that asking me to speak about water cooperation in this dry New Mexico year, was asking me to put lipstick on a pig.

Down on the Pecos, the Carlsbad Irrigation District is invoking what New York Times reporter Felicity Barringer called “the nuclear option” — a priority call asking the state to shut down groundwater pumps run by its neighbors in Roswell and Artesia.

But before I got to Ghost Ranch on Friday afternoon, I took the turnoff to Abiquiu Reservoir. In drought-parched New Mexico, this is the one reservoir that has a lot of water. It glistened blue-green beneath a bowl of rust-red cliffs, shimmering in a brisk afternoon wind.

For fans of cooperation, there is hope in plans for a release beginning today or Wednesday out of Abiquiu, a big slug of municipal water now in storage to try to boost the meager flow of the Rio Grande.

The water is part of whatever the opposite of a “rainy day fund” might be, water the Albuquerque agency has been importing into the Chama Basin from the headwaters of the San Juan River and stashing at Abiquiu for later use. Even in this dry year, Albuquerque has a smartly acquired stockpile.

For about three weeks, Albuquerque will release about 200 million gallons of that water per day, running it down the Chama, into the Rio Grande north of Española, and down through Albuquerque to eventually to drought-depleted Elephant Butte Reservoir.

It’s not a donation. Under its water rights permits, Albuquerque is required to make up some of the water its groundwater pumping indirectly sucks out of the Rio Grande as the river flows through the metro area.

The most efficient way for Albuquerque to do that is to move the water in the dead of winter, when evaporation losses are lowest, sending it down to Elephant Butte to make up for the impact of pumping on the river.

Moving it now instead, Albuquerque will lose about 10 percent to 15 percent of it to evaporation, according to John Stomp, the Albuquerque water utility’s chief operating officer.

According to Mike Hamman of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque office, the move is one of the products of intense discussions among local, state and federal agencies with responsibility for the river, trying to figure out how to maximize the use of what water they have in this extreme year of drought. They are trying to juggle the water needs of farms and cities, with the legal (and some might say moral) requirement to leave water in the river for nature.

“We’re trying to help out,” Stomp said when I called him Monday to get the latest update on the plan.

The players at the table in these discussions sometimes look from the outside like they’re fighting over the scarce waters of the Rio Grande, but for this week and in making this decision, they’ve demonstrated cooperation.

It’s not all honey and roses. At the same time water managers began working out the details of their bonus water, the Colorado Division of Water Resources sent out an email Friday to let everyone know that farmers north of the border would begin taking their irrigation this week, taking a big bite out of the available Rio Grande water making it down from the north.

It’s going to be a tough year.

One of the clear subtext’s of Steve’s Ghost Ranch gathering was that we’re in this mess in significant measure because of the way we expanded our farms and cities over the last century in a way that may not be sustainable in this arid land, and certainly is not sustainable during years like this.

But if you go out to look at the river next weekend, as I will, know that the water you’re seeing is a reminder that sometimes, water is for cooperatin’ over.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal