Got sewage?
Don’t like drinking recycled water? Reduce your use

It's possible a perfect storm of water miseries could form in the Middle Rio Grande Valley and cause large numbers of New Mexicans to have to drink treated sewage water - like they're about to do in a number of states in Australia.

Is such a perfect storm likely? Probably not right away. But who knows? Nature and denial have set the stage for such a congruence of misfortunes.

In Queensland Province, Australia, one of the fastest-growing regions of that country, drought has so undermined water supplies that the regional government has no choice but to recycle sewage water. Such a fate might happen this year to the 4.3 million residents of Australia's largest city, Sydney.

Overgrowing your water supply is not just doom-and-gloom talk. When you grow too much too fast, you make yourself increasingly vulnerable to climactic, social and economic upheavals.

Look at what happened in Chaco Canyon more than 850 years ago. A massive complex of mega-buildings, highways for ritual and transportation purposes and huge agricultural enterprises in all likelihood out-grew its water resources. And with over- building and drought came social upheaval and abandonment of the whole urban system.

Imagine trying to keep a big city like Albuquerque growing, if its residents have to drink treated sewage. Not a happy economic prospect, I'd say.

And what would cause such a perfect storm of water miseries here? You don't have to be a hydrologist or a political genius to figure it out. It could be a combination of any of the following or all of them at once:

A long-term reduction in the snowpacks that feed the Colorado River and the Rio Grande, causing a water battle among powerful and not-so-powerful states in which might makes right and New Mexico loses its small share of the Colorado.

An ongoing drought, accompanying river losses, which causes our aquifer to shrink even more, and we pump more and more, trying to accommodate metro Albuquerque's growth, extracting more than 60,000 acre-feet a year, despite the addition of San Juan-Chama drinking water;

Discovering that the quality of Albuquerque's aquifer has been degraded far more than previously thought by industrial contamination, petroleum pollution from storage tanks, radioactive dumping, medical waste, the spread and depth of federal Superfund plumes and the age-old problems of landfills and leaking septic systems.

Then you can add the various legal explosions from holders of senior water rights, irrigators and others, when metroplexes exercise their rights of eminent domain and commandeer water for their populations, willing to risk any legal embroilments rather than forcing the populations, tourists and businesses to use recycled sewage water for drinking.

How can we avoid such a perfect storm? Begin by radically reducing our water consumption. The less we're used to using, the less pain we'll suffer as the drought continues.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
February 16, 2007