City, county madder than wet hens over water rights

It's come to this in New Mexico: Business lobbyists of the GOP, libertarian persuasion, who champion growth without restraint, are accusing business progressives, who aim for planned growth and sustainability, of being socialists. That's one step up from perhaps the most dreaded accusation in America, being called a communist.

Not only that, there's a major, long term conflict brewing in New Mexico between acequia associations and the states' water bureaucracy and its emerging state water plan. Worse, the pueblos, with their senior water rights, could get dragged into the conflict between traditional farmers and their cultural imperatives, and a nasty marketplace approach to the commodification of water which only the rich can win.

Moreover, the state's current drought has pitted not only traditional GOP interests against Democrats, it has Democrats whacking on each other over water in metro Albuquerque. This would be comic opera politics, if it weren't so serious. If the drought continues next year, which seems all too likely, 2004 should see something close to a civil war in the courts over water and development in our state.

In the Middle Rio Grande Valley water is driving everybody crazy too. Not only are accusations of socialism flying about, but deeper levels of intellectual honesty are taking a shellacking too — and perhaps not even on purpose.

Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez told the American Society of Agricultural Engineers recently that the city's water problem is “not really a growth issue,” the Tribune reported. Then he made a devastating statement. If Albuquerque continues growing at its current rate, there's only 25 years of water left in the aquifer. And if there's no growth at all, 35 years of water remains underground. I'd never heard those numbers before. Twenty five years of water left for a city is literally like a personal death prognosis from a doctor.

Earlier this month the State Engineer granted Albuquerque a permit to draw 155,000 acre feet per year from the aquifer. That's up from the current 132,000 acre feet. Ah, but the Mayor reassured the assembled agricultural engineers that 48,000 acre feet a year of new water from the San Juan-Chama would take care of 70% of our drinking water needs.

Unhappily that's not how the numbers play out. An influx of 48,000 acre feet of new water takes care of only 31%, not 70%, of our expanded usage. The San Juan-Chama water isn't going to help us much if we keep on growing at the current rate.

Many people with development clout suspect this, and they're trying to get all they can in a hurry, especially Democrats. The new city-county Water Utility Authority created by the Legislature this year is a gladiatorial combat zone.

Democrats from the county commission and the city council battle about who pays for water extensions into undeveloped land, while Albuquerque's mayor, an avowed opponent of the new water authority, votes with county commissioners who like their new- found power over city water. Does that make any sense?

The county has historic issues over city water. It needs a clean water supply. And as domestic wells come under attack from the state water plan, demanding they be monitored, city water in the county will become a matter of survival for existing residents. I emphasize the word “existing.”

Even worse than this heated bickering is the potential political disaster built into the state's new water plan. Although state water bureaucrats supposedly reassured the New Mexico Acequia Association that their concerns would be addressed in the final plan, I'm skeptical. The Acequia Association rightly wants acequia water protected under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. They fear that metering their water will undermine traditional and super efficient management practices. And they want adjudication processes to be more equitable and humane for small farmers and acequia users.

The association's concerns fall into the same marginalized category as sustainability, as far the business thinking of politicians is concerned. And that spells deep trouble ahead.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
November 25, 2003