Guess what? This is no droughtBy Jerry Ortiz y Pino | Santa Fe New Mexican: Sunday, June 23, 2013
When the Legislative Water and Natural Resources Committee met recently, it heard a report on New Mexico’s water situation so sobering that it left participants shaken. Scientists are suggesting that New Mexico’s lack of rain does not necessarily mean we are in a drought, a temporary moisture shortfall.
Instead, researchers say that over the past thousand years, this year is the norm, and the past 50 years are the aberration. In short, we might not see more rain for a long time. Since we have only been receiving 6 to 10 inches annually during this “abnormally wet” period, we must act immediately to deal with the implications of a prolonged period of 1 to 3 inches of rainfall per year.
All of our current water policy and planning is premised on 6 to 10 inches. We have compact obligations and agreements all based on those 6 to 10 inches. When they don’t arrive in a given year, we suffer cutbacks. When they don’t arrive for two or more years, we deplete reserves and face catastrophes like this year’s:
• Ranchers forced to reduce the size of herds by two-thirds.
Texas is suing over a similar issue in the Mesilla Valley, where farmers have turned to wells to compensate for the lack of ditch water, negatively impacting El Paso agriculture. If we lose, that court case could cause New Mexico to pay damages of up to a billion dollars.
This is after two years of reduced rainfall. What if it were decades before the 6- to 10-inch levels fall again? How will we adjust to that reality? Owning “rights” to water is useless if there is no water to own. A couple more years of Colorado snowpack like the last two will make our San Juan-Chama purchased “rights” theoretical.
If we are to avoid the fate of the region’s earlier civilizations, which disappeared when rivers and springs went dry, our policies must change. We need realistic agriculture. Is New Mexico really a good place for cotton, pecans or dairies? Maybe, with 6 to 10 inches of rain a year, but how about an era of 1 to 3 inches?
Can technology bail us out? Is desalinization just a temporary fix? Do pipelines from the Mississippi make economic, environmental or social sense? Could water recycling and reuse change the situation enough to justify the investments they’d require? Can cloud seeding work? Can a New Mexico with 1 to 3 inches of annual rainfall for the foreseeable future sustain even its current population?
Water, our most precious resource, must stay at the top of the agenda for policymakers. Anyone serving as governor will face no bigger challenge than water. It alone could be the basis for choosing among the candidates.
Gov. Susana Martinez hasn’t led on water so far. Where will she take us? Do her challengers offer more than platitudes? If we are too unrealistic (or politically paralyzed) to act decisively, then nature won’t go away; we will just become its victims. The Anasazi left us an important lesson: Pray for rain, but then act as if it won’t arrive for a century.
Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino represents District 12 in the New Mexico Senate.