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Water planning at the loading dock

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Back in the mid-2000s, a group of scholars led by led by David Cash looked at how people use climate forecast information developed by scientists. Their finding seems in retrospect unsurprising: if users work with scientists beforehand, the information is a lot more useful (and more well used) than if scientists do the work on their own and simply hand it over. Their paper had the added benefit of a catchy title – Countering the Loading-Dock Approach to Linking Science and Decision Making – and their metaphor of the “loading dock” has become a handy shorthand for social scientists trying to guide what happens at the interface of science and the political action on which it depends.

A big part of the conflict that I wrote about in this morning’s paper over development of a new state water plan looks an awful lot like a loading dock problem:

[T]he planning process, still in its early stages, has revived a longstanding conflict between community leaders and state government. At issue is who will control the numbers. In past regional water planning, local communities developed their own supply and demand projections. This time around, the state says it will calculate the numbers for each of the state’s 16 regions.

“They’re just going to turn this into a top-down, state-run program,” said Charlie Nylander of Santa Fe, chairman of the Jemez y Sangre Regional Water Planning Council.

State officials say they tried the bottom up appoach last time around, as regional water planning groups developed their own estimates of local supply and demand. There’s a good argument to be made that it didn’t work. From my story:

An analysis of the 16 regional plans done by a state consultant found that while the state’s water supplies were taxed to the limit by current uses, all of the regions expected their population and water needs to grow. The most common option cited in the regional plans was moving water from agriculture to other uses. But taken as a whole, the regional water plans also called for agricultural use in New Mexico to grow.

In other words, they became more of a lobbying tool – “We need more water!” – than a hard-nose planning effort.

Here’s why this conflict matters.

Critics of the current process charge that the numbers the state will be calculating do not take into account important water management metrics. The most significant is the somewhat arcane but critical distinction between “withdrawals” and “consumptive use” (also called “depletions”). If a city or farm irrigator pumps water from the aquifer, or diverts it from a river, that’s a withdrawal. If the water is then used up (primarily this happens through evaporation from yards or crops) so it is unavailable for use by other water users, that’s a consumptive use, or a depletion. But some of that water is returned to the system – through sewage treatment plant return flows, or water that percolates through a farmer’s field back into the aquifer. That water is then available for use by others.

There are policies that will reduce one, but not the other. A lot of agricultural efficiency improvement, for example, can significantly reduce the amount of water a farmer applies to her field, but will also reduce the groundwater recharge and other return flows. Withdrawals are reduced, but consumptive use is not.

That distinction is critical for water management policy. The state’s current plan calls for only calculating withdrawals, and not consumptive use. Some of the people hoping to use this information think consumptive use is a more important measure. Here’s Elaine Hebard, a veteran of middle Rio Grande water planning, from her September written comments to the state regarding the issue (she uses the word “depletions”, which is equivalent to “consumptive use”):

Both the (Interstate Stream Commission) and (Office of State Engineer) track depletions. The ISC has to in order to maintain Rio Grande Compact compliance. The OSE does in order to administer water rights and aquifer depletions. With the data available, why not use it for regional water planning also?

To enable the determination of “available water supply, planners must consider both hydrological and legal limitations.” Without such data for the entire Rio Grande Basin, such limitations cannot be adequately considered by the three regions. Without the full data set, how can we focus “on identifying the projects, programs, and funding needs that will help them address the current drought and other long-term planning issues”?

The omission of categories of use and relying on withdrawals as opposed to depletions will create problems as well with projected water uses for each category of use, which are to “be bracketed with a high and low projection,” presumably based on the “low and high population projection” and “will be for diversions.”

Here is how Steve Hernandez, from Las Cruces, put it in his written comments to the state:

During the formulation of the original Lower Rio Grande Regional Plan, the meetings among the various representatives regarding water supply were some of the most beneficial to the region. The same was true of water demand. The process of developing water supply and water demand can’t take place in a vacuum without discussion among the representatives.

State officials argue that the depletions/consumptive use calculations people like Hebard would like are non-trivial, making planning much more expensive and time-consuming with the potential that the process could become mired in argument over how the depletions are to be calculated. Their argument, essentially, is that we not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. A withdrawal-based analysis will be a good enough foundation to begin grappling with our problems, they say.

Community-based critics say there are other concerns as well – the state’s decision not to consider climate change and the lack of inclusion of data on water use by riverside vegetation, for example. By leaving those things out, is the state creating a loading dock problem for itself?