Hawking H2O: A private utility water firm
has no place in a state wracked by drought

At the beginning of New Mexico's Year of Water, Albuquerque and Rio Rancho find themselves on the same side of an obscure and complicated water dispute with a California company that owns a water utility serving nearly 5,300 residents of Paradise Hills.

Obscure as it is, this conflict contains a major issue in future New Mexico water wars - the privatization of a public resource, turning water into a commodity for profit, like oil and gas, rather than keeping it the common property of all.

It also relates, indirectly, to the struggle between urban and agricultural water rights and our local food supply.

New Mexico may one day be as dependent on local agriculture as it is on local water. According to the New Mexico Grocers Association, New Mexico has about a week's worth of food in its stores and no way to feed itself with local produce, as more than 90 percent of what we eat is trucked in.

With climate change causing isolating storms, with energy crises and gasoline shortages down the road, with the potential of quarantines from epidemics, New Mexico needs to be building its agricultural self-sufficiency, rather than raiding agricultural water rights to boost urban growth.

What does this have to do with Albuquerque and Rio Rancho taking on a California water company? It comes down to the stark difference between how we looked at water in the past and how we must deal with it in the future.

In 1973, when metro area leaders thought Albuquerque was sitting on top of an aquifer the size of Lake Superior, the city of Albuquerque made a deal with California-based Southwest Water Co., which owned New Mexico Utilities Inc., to supply water to Paradise Hills. City leaders agreed to give N.M. Utilities low sewer rates and to cover losses to the aquifer that might occur, thinking, I'm sure, there wouldn't be any.

But now, with New Mexico facing a severely depleted aquifer that definitely is not Lake Superior, the joint City-County Water Utility Authority wants to buy out N.M. Utilities, charging among other things that it doesn't conserve enough water in a time of drought and doesn't have enough water rights to cover its usage. Rio Rancho sees N.M. Utilities as a competitor for agricultural water rights.

But N.M. Utilities doesn't want to sell. Water in New Mexico makes the California company a lot money.

When trying to balance the delicate water issues of our state - including the growth of our local food supply - a private, out-of-state water company, with few enforceable restraints, seems superfluous to New Mexico's real water needs.

The city and county should exercise their powers of eminent domain, pay the California company a fair market price, getting rid of this deal from the past when Albuquerque had delusions of limitless water and limitless growth.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
January 22, 2007