Editorial: NM needs leaders who will tackle real water solutions now - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: NM needs leaders who will tackle real water solutions now

Bankruptcy, Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, comes “gradually, then suddenly.”

So does water scarcity. New Mexico is in a sudden spasm about a water future that has withered in the grips of a 20-year drought affecting the entire western United States.

Suddenly, conservation doesn’t seem to be enough. In the past year, finding new supplies has become the new “it” solution. There have been proposals of using desalination to take advantage of New Mexico’s ample underground brackish water reserves. Lately, it’s been diverting excess water from the Mississippi or Missouri watersheds to the parched Colorado River and Rio Grande systems.

Neither is inexpensive. Neither is a quick fix. But when you ignore a problem long enough, the need to face it comes suddenly, and a quick fix is what you want, even need.

New Mexico’s braintrust should be spending more time explaining exactly how the state is going to bridge the gap between current supply and future demand. We can’t even get out from under a running debt of water owed to Texas, so how are we going to bank enough water to promote the diverse economic growth needed to compensate for an anticipated reduction in fossil fuel production? Even as we close in on zero-carbon deadlines, state and local governments are more reliant than ever on oil and gas revenues.

State lawmakers would be wise to take a chunk of the $2.5 billion in “new money” expected to be available in the coming fiscal year and fund a feasibility study of water development projects. The public needs to understand the challenges of desalination and interbasin diversions. Worst case scenario? It confirms aggressive conservation — and asking hard questions about agricultural use while investing in aging water infrastructure to improve efficiency — is our best hope for a secure water future.

New Mexico’s congressional Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to ensure federal drought money is put to good use. Last week U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and U.S. Reps. Melanie Stansbury and Teresa Leger Fernández joined Colorado congressional Democrats in a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) urging the agency to prioritize funding for long-term, permanent solutions to the drought crisis in the Colorado River Basin as it allocates $4 billion in new funding from the Inflation Reduction Act to address the western drought.

Sounds like something the state should be partnering with them on to eliminate duplication and get everyone on the same page.

In the letter, the lawmakers urge the bureau to direct resources through states, local governments, tribes and public entities and to employ a consistent measurement of system-wide water losses in both basins of the river. They also encourage it to look at innovative methods for reducing water use basin-wide, including new data and technology.

The immediate emphasis is on reducing consumption in the upper and lower basins of the over-appropriated Colorado River system. Whether “permanent solutions” involve desalination or excess Midwest water remains to be seen, but each presents its own hurdles.

First, most forms of desalination are energy-intensive and have the potential to increase fossil fuel dependence, increase greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbate climate change if renewable energy sources aren’t used to clean the water. Nuclear power is an alternative, especially with the advent of small, portable reactors, but given the battle to store nuclear waste, producing it seems an uphill fight.

Second, don’t expect the states through which the Missouri and Mississippi rivers run their course to be willing participants in water diversions. Many watershed states, including Minnesota, as well as the federal government in the Great Lakes Compact, have already made such action either illegal or contingent upon multiple states’ approval.

It’s time state leaders started a real dialogue about how we’re going to survive diminishing stream flows in the face of a drought that shows no signs of ending soon. We’re already 20 years behind the curve.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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