Cities in the basin that splits New Mexico lengthwise are growing at an unprecedented rate and with it their need for water.
Their demands compete with those of agriculture and endangered species at the same time nature has sent the state into one of its worst dry spells in decades. Some longtime water observers wonder how long the growth can continue without draining the basin dry.
“I see long, bad battles ahead with plenty of bloody expensive legal fights over who owns the water,” said Steve Harris, director of the nonprofit Rio Grande Restoration in Pilar and a rafting guide. “It’s potentially a terribly contentious issue.” (emphasis added)
The reason I’ve been tinkering with the Salton Sea story is its (potential?) centrality to the story of climate variability and the allocation of the Colorado River’s water. (I say I’m writing a book about “drought,” but I’m really trying to deal with questions of how people here in the West have responded over the years to decadal-scale climate variability. “Drought” people get. “Decadal-scale climate variability” gets me that glazed eye look.)
In the first two decades of the 20th century, folks were trying to turn the desert of the Imperial Valley of southeast California into farmland. Great soil, great sunshine, no rain, but the relatively frequent rampaging of the Colorado River flooding them out. So while much of the impetus for damming the Colorado involved storage of water for droughts, the Imperial folks needed it dammed a) to give them a reliable flow of irrigation water rather than the Colorado’s huge fluctuations, and b) to keep them from getting flooded out by the Colorado’s huge fluctuations.
I think it’s important to look to the past to predict what will happen in the future, and Fleck has been leading the way on this. The New Mexican story has lots of great info as well, and ends with a meeting of old and new:
Zia Pueblo’s Pino can look south across the Jemez Valley from the tribal offices to a mesa only a few miles away. “That’s how far Rio Rancho will come,” he said, pointing to the mesa.
The city has already purchased more than 150 acre-feet of agricultural water in the valley and is looking for more. It must acquire 24,000 acre-feet of surface-water rights in the next 50 years.
Pino and his tribe can trace their generations in the valley back 800 years to when their forebears migrated from Mesa Verde. They dryland farmed on 3,000 acres of mesatop until they learned to irrigate from the Jemez River, Pino said.
North of the offices is pueblo housing, with little or no landscaping. “We have an extensive resolution that prohibits car washing, watering of lawns, watering shade trees or using domestic water for livestock,” he said.
He said he’s driven through Rio Rancho and seen water running down the street. “It’s really sickening,” he said. “If we don’t learn how to conserve and how to look out for each other, then we’re going to destroy ourselves.”