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Rising to challenge of New Mexico’s falling water supply

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sunday was a perfect day for gardening.

I filled 15 big trash bags with leaves and trimmings. I pruned roses, pulled weeds and raked out my lawn. All the while I wondered, in light of our long drought that is probably not a drought at all but a new normal brought on by our changing climate, how much longer I can keep my lawn. More to the point, what is Albuquerque’s future if our water supply is as precarious as it seems to be?

I used to walk a few desks from mine when I had water questions and talk with John Fleck, who covered water issues for the Journal for years. Fleck got a book contract and an appointment to teach at the University of New Mexico, so this time I went to his office in the economics department. He invited Bruce Thomson, a UNM civil engineering research professor, to join us.

Their short answer: We will muddle through. In fact, we are already muddling through. There are fewer lawns in Albuquerque and more dead trees, Thomson said, and there are beautiful, vibrant xeriscaped neighborhoods all over the city.

Their longer answer: New Mexico’s bizarre approach to water rights pretty much guarantees nearly all of our water will remain in agricultural use, even though the agricultural economy contributes less than 2 percent to our state’s gross domestic product, according to UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Because agricultural users don’t pay for the water they use, and since they usually can’t sell rights they don’t need, they have little incentive to conserve. Therefore, most of the water conservation will occur in the cities.

The reason: it is almost impossible to say with certainty who owns water rights in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, and it would be obscenely expensive to find out. If you can’t be certain who owns the right, you can’t create a market to buy, sell and lease water. Since it is hard to obtain water rights, and since nature doesn’t seem to want to give us more water, conservation is the best way to stretch supplies.

The historic Hebenstreit house in the Albuquerque Country Club neighborhood near Downtown features beautiful, conventional landscaping that the Southwest's long drought makes more difficult to maintain. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

The historic Hebenstreit house in the Albuquerque Country Club neighborhood near Downtown features beautiful, conventional landscaping that the Southwest’s long drought makes more difficult to maintain. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

City residents and businesses have been very good at that. Water use in Albuquerque was 255 gallons per capita per day in 1995, Fleck said. It is now 135 gallons per capita per day. Some of that reduction occurred because toilets, showers, dishwashers and other appliances use less water. Some is because of the rising price of water service and incentives to conserve. The culture of use is changing, too, Fleck said. People across the Southwest are conserving even in the absence of higher prices and incentives.

Under state law, water rights belong to who ever put the water to beneficial use first. “Agricultural users will continue to have all the water they are entitled to because they were here first,” Thomson said.

As much as cities need water, and as much as some farmers may want to sell their rights, the transaction is nearly impossible to execute. Except for some rights that can be proved to have been in place before a 1907 territorial law was enacted, water rights are secured in the courts. The State Engineer’s Office files a lawsuit that names as a defendant every possible water rights holder in a given area. Everyone gets a lawyer, everyone scrambles to produce documents that might prove his or her right to the water, and the court slogs through the mess trying to figure out who owns what.

The infamous Aamodt adjudication of water in northern New Mexico began in the 1960s. A settlement agreement wasn’t signed until 2013. An adjudication on the lower Rio Grande begun in the 1980s involves 18,000 litigants. Thomson said if anyone tried to adjudicate the middle Rio Grande it would probably involve 150,000 litigants.

“It’s a process that is so expensive and cumbersome, we just don’t do it,” Fleck said. “Rather than launching a process that couldn’t be finished, we muddle through. So we just don’t know who has water rights. We probably never will.”

About 40 percent of the water in our area is used by the trees and other plants along the Rio Grande. Clearly, the community values the green space along the Rio Grande, Fleck said, but there is no mechanism to keep it wet in a dry year, no way for the city to pump stored groundwater to replenish it, no way to reward farmers for letting fields go fallow so more water can stay in the river, no way to efficiently resolve conflicting uses and needs.

It will be decades before we know whether the long drought we’re in is in fact a sign of a new, drier climate, Thomson said. Computer models predict there will be 15 percent to 20 percent less water in the Rio Grande by 2050 or so than there is today, he said. Temperatures will likely be higher and growing seasons longer. That means plants in the watershed will require more water, which means less water will get to the rivers.

To see the future of Albuquerque, Fleck suggests a visit to Las Vegas, Nev. That community was forced to confront a rapidly depleting water supply at Lake Mead and responded with an aggressive and voluntary conservation push that includes plenty of xeriscaping.

“We know how to do this. Humans are adaptable,” Fleck said. “When people have less water, they use less water.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.