Parched efforts:
Clean energy gets help, but water reform only a trickle in state

Songbird populations are declining in New Mexico and around the world.

A London energy think tank gives the planet around four years before peak oil production declines and demand, forever, overreaches supply. Drinking water everywhere is threatened by pollution and overuse. And global warming, like a wasting disease, undermines more micro-climates every day.

Most of us sense that an unprecedented environmental and energy transition is upon us. Are we up to the challenge? In New Mexico, the answer is still a mixed bag.

Albuquerque's Mayor Martin Chavez, for instance, has drastically reduced city-government energy consumption, increased mass transit ridership for the first time in years and is becoming aggressive about recycling. But uncontrolled, sprawling growth gobbles up gas and water like there's no tomorrow.

In this year's legislative session, during the governor's declared Year of Water, no major water-reform measures were passed, although lawmakers did OK numerous clean-energy bills, including one that changes building codes to make it easier to install solar panels.

The nonpartisan Conservation Voters of New Mexico's "Legislative Score Card," released last month, gives a complete overview of the "highlights and lowlights" of the session. The organization gives Gov. Richardson and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish high marks for "good intentions" and "strong leadership" in supporting a successful clean-energy agenda, including tax incentives to protect open space and promote renewable energy. But the "highlights" this year are few and far between.

The Surface Owner's Protection Act was a major legislative accomplishment, requiring oil and gas producers to inform and negotiate with landowners about drilling on their property. And a bill dreamed up by a national right-wing think tank that was designed to hamper state environmental regulation of mining and industry, heavily backed by local business groups, was defeated.

But this year, neither the governor nor the conservation-minded majority in the Legislature could pass even modest linchpin legislation to start building a sustainable and equitable environmental future.

The most important water-reform bills failed. They would have given the State Engineer's water-supply analysis binding authority over new subdivisions and allowed the State Engineer's Office to control, to some degree, 40-year water plans for subdivisions and cities. Those measures would have extended the engineer's authority over water deeper than 2,500 feet below the surface.

A bill designed to promote environmental justice and help keep polluting industries out of poorer and minority neighborhoods failed. And a bill that would have created a funding source for wildlife, land conservation and renewable energy matching money also failed, despite heavy support from American Indian tribes, farmers, clean-energy businesses and others.

The failure of water reform was the most serious disappointment. As the Conservation Voters of New Mexico observed, "The Legislature and executive seem to lack the political will to make the necessary changes" to protect our fragile water supplies.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
July 6, 2007