Across the United States, 50 percent of the country is suffering from drought. Commodity prices are the highest on record. A recently published Sandia Lab study estimates that the average risk of damage to the U.S. economy from climate change is on the order of $1 trillion over the next 40 years.
Udall referred to historian Jeremy Sabloff, who studied the effect of prolonged drought on the Mayan culture of 1,000 years ago. Some areas survived and thrived, some did not. Sabloff advises us: “Look across the Southwest and ask, Are we going to allow unfettered growth? How resilient do we want to be? What sort of steps are we willing to take to get there?”
Senator Udall then asked the panelists and participants at the conference to provide assessments and policy proposals that his staff and the WRRI scientists can compile. The results will be posted on the web and public input will be requested.
There were more than two dozen people on the panels, and this article will only cover a few of the points that I found significant. One of the first was the water deficit slide shown by Sam Fernald. We have 1.2 million acre-feet to use (1 acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons), that is our “income,” but 4 million acre-feet are being withdrawn each year. That comes from groundwater, and we only have a finite amount. Right now we are removing nearly 2.8 million acre-feet of water from our “savings account” each year. Do we plan to just continue to do this until it dries up [which is what Texas is doing to the Ogalalla aquifer—EW], or will we start to reduce our demand and recycle our used water? Depletion of groundwater also tends to decrease the flows in our rivers (surface water). Precipitation, ground water, and surface water are all interconnected.
Dagmar Llewellyn described the “cascade effect” of climate change. More intense droughts and higher temperatures allow invading bark beetles to survive at higher altitudes, and these conditions also make the trees dryer. They become more susceptible to beetle infestation or just plain die of thirst and sunburn. This turns them into fuel for wildfires. The aftermath of the black scars from the fires on the land causes more storms (the black areas absorb the sun’s heat and concentrate the clouds), which lead to flooding and choking of the streams with ash and debris, killing the fish and making the water undrinkable, so the water supply is reduced even more. The areas where the Little Bear and Whitewater-Baldy and possibly the Horse Canyon fires occurred may show these aftereffects for several years.
Attorney Denise Fort pointed out that we need to change our state’s environmental laws so that the administration of water law and state water policy protects environmental flows in rivers. Such laws and policy will also help protect our tourism industry.
Both Sam Fernald and Michael Gabaldon mentioned the Alamogordo Desalination Research facility. Desalination of brackish water is one of the few ways to “grow the pie,” that is, the supply of water. Gabaldon works there and says it is very busy. They have six research bays, and one of the projects is teaming the use of desalination with solar power to bring down the costs of the purification. Fernald said “the amount of brackish groundwater out there is mind-boggling, and this is one of those sort of miracle fixes… if we can find the technology.”
Howard Passell presented a paper titled “Transformational solutions: Bridging the gap between projected water and energy supply and demand in the Middle Rio Grande and the Western U.S.” He and his co-authors examine the choices that will need to be made to meet the requirements of the Rio Grande Compact in the Middle Rio Grande area if the current decline in surface water and reservoir supplies continues. The model takes climate change, but not population growth, into account. This makes it a “best-case” scenario, as another presenter showed the current population (90,000) and projected population (300,000) of the Rio Rancho area, which makes the developers happy but means more stress on the water supply if that much development is realized.
The model predicts that by 2100 the Compact deficit (the amount of water New Mexico owes to Texas) will be more than two million acre-feet. Much of the work that is currently being done will provide some small easing of the problems, but incremental changes will not be sufficient to meet the need. Transformational (drastic) solutions are needed.
The authors looked at three possible transformational solutions:
1. Cut agricultural activity in half in the area, reducing the farmed acres from about 50,000 acres to 25,000 acres. That would reduce the Compact deficit to “only” 200,000 acre-feet, but imperil the food supply in the region.
2. Reduce the Bosque wildlife preserve from 60,000 acres to 20,000 acres. This too reduces the deficit by a similar amount, but is very damaging to the ecosystem and would negatively affect tourism.
3. Line the river with concrete. That sounds pretty drastic, and expensive. It would do the job, but the loss of leakage will dry up the surrounding riparian areas and also probably destroy the Bosque.
Hansen presented a completely different, and transformational, approach: reduce demand. Drive less, fly less, eat less beef, own fewer TV’s, control population growth, separate resource consumption from quality of life, and move toward a steady state economy. The idea of a steady state economy probably frightens investors and entrepreneurs. It seems they currently see profit only in unlimited growth, not in a stable society.
There were a couple of interesting sidelights presented by Senator Udall. He discussed the difference between price and value, comparing a diamond, which is expensive, to water, which is precious. Del Archuleta, of Molzen-Corbin & Assoc., followed up on this, commenting that New Mexico water rates are very low. He pointed out that this has led to the neglect of preventative maintenance on our aging water infrastructure, much of which is more than 60 years old. Senator Udall believes that there is unlikely to be much future Federal funding for repairs and improvements.
Udall also showed a slide of John Wesley Powell’s original map of the west. Powell explored the West and Southwest and was one of the few white men who genuinely respected the native people. Powell proposed that the western state boundaries be determined by watershed boundaries, as water is the most precious resource in the area. In 1883 he warned the attendees at an irrigation conference, “Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land.” I wonder how much of our conflict and confrontation over water rights might have been avoided if his proposal for defining state boundaries along watershed boundaries had been accepted.
Ellen Wedum is a retired physical chemist and lives outside Cloudcroft.