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NM water: The case for half full

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When there is more water, people use more water. When there is less, they use less.

The trick is making the transition from one to the other. New data from state water managers suggest New Mexicans are doing better at this task than I expected.

As I wrote in yesterday’s Journal, new state water use data suggests New Mexico may have passed the point of “peak water” – maxing out our use of available river water and, in the case of groundwater, overshooting by pumping too much. Peak water seems to have come in the mid-1990s for municipal use, and possibly far earlier for irrigated agriculture. Total state water use – agricultural, municipal, industrial and the like – dropped 14 percent from 1995 to 2010.

It’s easy to characterize this as a grim trend, but if you’ll pardon the inevitable pun, I think there’s a case to be made here that the glass is half full.

It is easy to single out communities for which declining water supplies are a big problem – farmers this year in the Carlsbad area and the Hatch Valley, for example, or the villages of Vaughn and Magdalena. But perhaps more striking is the grace with which much of New Mexico’s population and economy has made the transition over the past two or more decades to a life with less water.

Consider first Farmington, holder of the title among larger communities (those with water systems serving more than 30,000 people) of highest per capita water use in the state.

In 2010, according to a new report from Office of the State Engineer, total water use in Farmington (including home and business) totaled 245 gallons per person per day. If you look at the underlying data, Farmington’s numbers make sense. It is nestled alongside the San Juan River, the largest river in the state, carrying twice as much water as the Rio Grande, and the only river that, according to state and federal calculations, still has unallocated water.

The folks in Farmington have more water, so they use more water.

Compare that to Santa Fe, which sits astride a river that is often so tapped out that it dries through town. Santa Fe, known for its aggressive water conservation program and efforts to diversify its water supply, had the lowest large community 2010 per capita use in the state at 111 gallons per person per day, less than half of Farmington’s. The folks in Santa Fe have less water, so they use less water.

There’s an important caveat to the data. Since 2005, the state has only reported “withdrawals” – how much water we pump from the ground or remove from rivers. But water use is always a two-step process, and some water is often returned to the system – through a toilet flush that ends up in the river, or irrigation water that soaks into the ground, where it can be used again by others. Critics in the New Mexico water management complain that you need that data as well to get a full picture of how our water is being used, and that without it the conservation savings could be overstated.

In a 2010 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Peter Gleick and Meena Palaniappan showed data suggesting modern America has been remarkably resilient in the face of scarce water. Through the first 75 years of the 20th century, water use and economic growth grew hand-in-hand. The bigger our economy, the more water we needed to fuel it. But that pattern fell apart in the mid-1970s. U.S. economic growth continued, but the total amount of water we needed to fuel that growth leveled off, and even began to decline. When you consider population growth, per capita water use has declined a lot.

There are a number of reasons for this, especially improved efficiency. Farm water use is especially sensitive to this. It’s a business.

The bottom line, according to Gary Woodard, a water-use expert with Montgomery and Associates, a Tucson consulting firm, is that population growth is no longer the main driver of changes in water use in the West.

There are important caveats. Santa Fe, already at 111 gallons per person, per day, will have a much harder time conserving more than a big water user. In his book “A Great Aridness,” a cautionary tale about the Southwest’s water, author Bill deBuys warns against the risk of “demand hardening.” Once you’ve taken all the basic conservation steps, you have little additional slack when a deeper drought or enduring climate change cut water supplies even further. The latest state report suggests New Mexico is nowhere near that point. And economists point out the inevitable pressure to shift water out of agriculture, which uses a disproportionately large share of our water compared to its share of the state’s economy.

Which brings us back to Farmington.

Far from being water hogs up in the northwest corner of the state, Farmington residents have been doing their part to conserve water along with the rest of us. They’ve got a higher starting point, because they have more water to begin with, but even they have been conserving.

From 1995 to 2010, Farmington’s population rose from 41,000 to 45,900. Despite the population growth, total water used dropped. Per capita use dropped from 336 gallons per person per day to 245, a 27 percent reduction.

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.