Water on the national level

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I’ve been blogging about water for a a couple of years, and John Fleck’s been doing it much longer than that. Water policy is incredibly complex, but can very easily be painted with a local or regional brush. With the drought-fed fires in California last week and the Georgia water scare, our liquid assets are getting more national attention.

Kevin Drum, responding to this Brad Plumber piece, has a concise examination of why fixing our water mess is so difficult:

Reducing agricultural water use by 20% would basically solve all our problems, but it can’t be done because water rights are controlled by an almost impenetrable maze of local water districts, Spanish land grants, English common law, multi-state compacts, acts of Congress, court rulings at every level imaginable, overlapping jurisdictions, and local, state and federal environmental regulations. And that’s not even counting the vast corporate lobbying forces that would be at work even if the legal Gordian knot weren’t.

Good reads all around.

Defining Water

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Via John Fleck is this Santa Fe New Mexican article that puts some great perspective on the state’s peak water woes:

New Mexico’s water math isn’t adding up. Real water plus paper water are supposed to equal water supply, but it doesn’t, especially during drought.

Real water: That’s wet water, the stuff one needs for drinking, washing clothes, growing food, building houses and cooling power plants.

Paper water: The piece of paper that says how much real water someone has the legal right to use.

The problem: New Mexico has more paper water than real water.

The result: Someone is going to go thirsty.

This has to be taken into consideration when entities are divvying up water. This might also be of particular concern for residents in southwest New Mexico in regard to the Arizona Water Settlements Act.

Gila River Watershed Improvement Plan and Strategy

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I haven’t had time to even start poring over this document, but the New Mexico Environment Department in conjunction with Northern Arizona University recently released this report. Why?

This Watershed Improvement Plan and Strategy (WIPS) is an inventory and data resource in support of a science-based approach to watershed resource planning. Watershed remediation work to improve deteriorated conditions is often supported by federal funds made available through Section (§)319 provisions of the Clean Water Act (CWA). This WIPS is a required component in New Mexico to securing §319 non-point source pollutant grant funding through the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New Mexico Environment Department (NMED; 2006b).

The file is huge — 276 MB (!) — and you’ll need to download the latest Acrobat Reader (version 8) just to open it, but the table of contents looks like there’s a lot of great information (including sections on watershed geography and conditions) and maps for you technophiles:

Gila Watershed

Don’t all of you download it at once — I like my server up and running.

Using fire to restore watersheds

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8-11-06 Pano small
I’ve got an article (PDF) in today’s Daily Press discussing a recent project in the Mangas Watershed to restore fire into the natural cycle of the ecosystem. A big part of the article details the cooperation among the agencies involved in the process, but the real interesting stuff if the way prescribed burns are helping the ecosystem in southwest New Mexico.

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Bruce Anderson, a Gila National Forest wildlife biologist, provided these before-and-after photos from one of the areas that was treated with fire. As you can see from the photos above, the area is returning to more of a “woodland” system, as opposed to a heavily forested (with piñon and juniper) system. The first photo is from August, while the second photo was taken more than a year ago in April 2006.

Here’s what he said about the project:

During the past several years, project partners completed a number of prescribed burns, totaling more than 55,000 acres, in the Mangas watershed area. In addition, more than 250 erosion control structures were completed along rills in the watershed.

The difference has been drastic. Bruce Anderson, a biologist with the Gila National Forest, told the Daily Press his agency was “very supportive” of the type of habitat restoration the Mangas project fostered.

“We’re seeing tremendous results,” Anderson said. “We’ve been doing this since 2000, and we’ve seen a very definite increase in the amount of deer use in these areas, as well as many of the other species.”

One of the constants during the past two years has been the number of Forest Service employees (and others) explaining the benefits of prescribed fires. Even after the tragic Los Alamos fire, and a resulting ban on prescribed burns, those who work in forests know that fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. I was told yesterday that fire traditionally swept through areas of the Mangas Watershed every 8-11 years, based on tree ring samples.

Fire (like water and energy) is a complex topic here in the Southwest. It can be incredibly hazardous, especially to homes within the Wildland Urban Interface. But it can also play a vital role in restoring the forest to a more natual state.

Water in the Rockies

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Via Headwaters News comes this report on the first day of the State of the Rockies Conference, currently underway in Colorado Springs:

But Day 1 really began to cook at the first panel on water sustainability. Attendees packed the room and, following panelists’ presentations, the audience threw tough questions at the speakers.

The first speaker from the panel was Tyler McMahon, a senior at Colorado College. Dressed in a gray suit with a red-striped tie not quite pulled snug, McMahon launched into an overview of his chapter, which focused on water transfers from agriculture users to urban water entities.

McMahon used a series of graphs and charts to show that water withdraws are increasing across the country and region, with Idaho and Colorado leading the western states. The driest states, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah had the least. He then went on to illustrate how farm economics and urban growth markets are together fueling the transfers.

It’s an interesting read, and I recommend you take the time to check out the entire report.