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Water: Why Care?

by Doug Pushard

I get a lot of blank stares when I start talking about water conservation and rainwater harvesting. Not among the folks who already do it here in Northern New Mexico, but from those who don’t. The typical response is “Why should I care? Water is cheap, and all I have to do is turn on the tap and it flows.” While it’s true that water does flow easily, it is even truer that we have yet to pay the true cost of for this precious resource and that cost will only increase in the years to come.

Plentiful, good-quality and easy-to-access (i.e., cheap) water is becoming a thing of the past. Quality is no longer a given when you turn on the tap. Water-quality problems — storm-runoff contamination, upstream pollution and city drinking water supplies not passing current Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standards — are now being reported on a monthly basis around North America and are a daily occurrence around the world.

Water is not a God-given right. It is a resource, and one that should be cautiously and respectfully treated. Google recent water news, and you will find headlines such as “ More water shortages coming to the west”, “India running out of water,” “Thirsty China turns to the sea,” “Water poses the biggest limit on growth in California,” “Arizona towns urged to balance growth,” and “Growth stirs a battle to draw more water from the Great Lakes.”

Tap water used to taste good and be good for you. No one had water filters, and the whole concept of buying bottled water in a store would have been laughed at. No more — water filtration is a $2.6 billion industry, with already one in four homes in the United States now having a unit. Bottled water is now more than a $100 billion industry worldwide and growing.

Just as demand for additional processing has driven up the price of gas, demand from population growth and the requirement to upgrade filtration equipment to create safe drinking water are driving up the price of water. And just as there have been shortages of gasoline, so will there be with water.

Water rates are going higher and higher. Santa Fe has announced annual 8%+ rate increases through 2013. In Albuquerque, the Water Authority’s power costs have risen 44 percent since 2005 and the agency has already announced 5% rate increases for both 2012 and 2014. Northern New Mexico is not alone in this trend, other cities in the west are doing the same: Maricopa Country which includes Phoenix (59%), Jerome, Ariz. (28%), Park City, Utah (10%), El Segundo, Calif. (65% increase since 2003), Santa Rosa, Calif. (8% increases next two years) and Henderson, Nev. (11% over the next two years).

Part of this trend is the need to update aging infrastructure, but in the booming west it is also to obtain new water sources to meet the needs of a growing population. The addition of new residents means a need for more water — water that is consumed directly and water that is needed to support the required growing infrastructure (e.g. electricity, building of roads, parks, etc.).

Folks are drawn to northern New Mexico for its abundant natural beauty and endless skies. The last six decades have seen tremendous population growth and an increasing demand for water.

Popluation Northern NM

To compound this demand for water, the southwest is experiencing a drought. Even putting the climate change debate aside, the fact is that leading scientists have been proclaiming for years now that the southwest is drying out.

For example, a recent US Bureau of Reclamation report had the following startling fact buried in it: The decade of the ‘00s has been the driest 10-year stretch in the Colorado River Basin since record keeping began more than 100 years ago.

Lake Mead in southeastern Nevada, the massive reservoir that stores Colorado River water for Nevada, Arizona and California, is at its lowest level since it was first filled in the 1930s. Upstream, Lake Powell’s level is not much better.

With Albuquerque increasingly dependent on water imported from the Colorado River Basin for its water, and Santa Fe soon to follow with the Buckman Direct Diversion Project (i.e. the San Juan-Chama Diversion Project diverts water from three headwater streams of the San Juan River in southern Colorado and delivers the imported water into the Chama River in New Mexico and consequently bound by the Colorado River Compact) scheduled to go on-line in 2011, what happens in that river basin matters in New Mexico.

This is not new news. In 1993, in one of the first detailed studies on the effect increasing greenhouse gases might have on the river basin, the esteemed California water researcher Peter Gleick and colleagues predicted declining flows in the arid west’s great river.

Declining precipitation rates across the southwest are one of the primary reasons our lakes and streams are declining. Northern New Mexico is not immune to this trend. As the chart below illustrates New Mexico is in a state of declining rainfalls at the same time the population is booming.

So with population growing and water sources diminishing, it is truly time to start paying attention. Times are changing and this challenge will probably only accelerate and intensify over the coming decades.

The quantity, quality and cost of water are crucial issues. As former president Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “A nation that fails to plan intelligently for the development and protection of its precious waters will be condemned to wither because of its shortsightedness.”

Below are a few simple and easy things you can do to help make a difference:

1. Start by being aware of your water. Do you really know anything about this precious resource and where it comes from to get to your tap? Call your local water company and get their Water Quality Report.

2. Conserve. It is not too late to start conserving this life-giving resource.

3. Harvest and use rainwater wisely. Get a rain barrel or a cistern. Don’t let a drop run off your property and become wasted.

4. Lastly, get involved. Join one of the many local water conservation groups, such as Earth Works Institute, www.earthworksinstitute.org.

Please help conserve our most precious resource. The solution starts with each of us doing what we can.



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