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2012 And Beyond: Sustainable Systems, the Predicament of Water in New Mexico, and the Need to Localize Our Local Economies
Recently I had an opportunity to fly over Las Vegas, Nevada. As I looked down at the northeast part of the city, I was dumbfounded at the sight of all the suburban houses that have a pool. This was in sharp contrast to the land beyond the surrounding mountains that provide shelter to the Las Vegas Valley. I found myself thinking about the water crisis looming beyond those mountains, and how we continue to challenge and upset local ecosystems based on our often irresponsible notions of development. And so I found myself questioning the rationale behind having so many houses with pools and whether these houses belong in the sort of fragile ecosystem landscape in which La Vegas and many other Southwestern cities have grown.
As I reflected about water and our own struggle to maintain water in the Atrisco Valley in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I remembered Dr. Brian H. Hurd and Dr. Coonrod’s study on climate change and its effects on development, agriculture and populations in NM.1 Their premise is that “NM’s social, economic and environmental systems are highly vulnerable to the increasing water scarcity that is projected to affect the state as a result of future climate change.” When I read this, I could not stop thinking about how in NM, our food security depends both on a fragile ecosystem and on imports of food from other areas of the country and other countries. What would happen if we lost our ability to produce food here and there was a breakdown in the food chain due to the scarcity of water or to any other catastrophe that stopped us from receiving food from neighboring states?
It was not a sense of hopelessness and pessimism that evoked this question, but rather an honest quest for understanding how development is viewed in our society and why there is a continuing struggle to keep our water systems from being taken to support new developments. Of course in our market society, demand rules; and so as long as there are eager and able buyers on one hand, and willing and needy sellers on the other, water will continue to be moved from one geographic location to another. The result is that we will witness more and more agricultural land being put to rest because water rights will continue to be transferred to satisfy new housing developments, industrial uses and indiscriminate pumping by municipalities.
There are some voices warning us that unless we seriously think about future water scarcity, between the years 2030 and 2080, our future generations will experience a major crisis due to the lack of water and the inability to grow enough food locally. According to a study released by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico2, the Middle Rio Grande region experienced demographic growth of 53 percent from 1990 to 2000. Precipitation, on the other hand, is projected to fall 40 percent from present levels, and so the question is, where are we going to get water to satisfy compact agreements, continue building computer chips, accommodate new development and grow food? The projections made by professors Hurd and Coonrod show that between the years 2030 and 2080, New Mexico will grow between 45.7 percent and 75.7 percent. So as population increases, the whole region will experience a drought that will have to be dealt with somehow.
It appears likely that dependency on food from other places will continue to dominate the already fragile state of affairs in which New Mexicans live. We currently spend less than 1 percent of all food cash receipts on local food. More than 99 percent of cash spent on food is spent on imported food and food products, and most of the food produced in NM is exported.3 So the question in terms of development is, what development are we actually fostering as a society when our most basic form of subsistence is being grown outside of NM’s borders? How do we resolve this predicament?
Before NM became a recognized state, it was a place where people grew food, survived on a bartering system and were highly dependent on the smart use of limited resources. The advent of modernization and the management and control of water by state agencies have complicated our ability to sustain ourselves as a bioregion. The general sense at the community level and with small farmers is that rules and regulations are being used as a pretext to get rid of traditional farmers and ranchers. Some farmers and ranchers feel that the USDA and FDA are trying to squeeze out the mid- and smaller producers.
Meanwhile, trying to survive within this chaos is the acequia culture practiced by Indo-Hispanic NM families, which has created a legacy of sustainability through community networks and democratic systems of decision-making and responsibility at the community level. Urban sprawl and industrial development, along with common contemporary notions about development, continue to threaten the existing acequia system in NM as a viable system for water management and a way to preserve small-scale agriculture as an economic asset for our community.
In the relatively modern history of New Mexico (1600s to the present), acequias have served as a social system through which community rituals and responsibilities are created. Acequias have also served as management entities that connect and organize entire communities and connect them to their past and future. Acequias carry seed for economic development by facilitating the growth of local organic foods and healthy families.
So, if water is in such a predicament here, we have to ask ourselves why we fail to take steps toward securing a future in which it can be a source of vitality rather than a source of conflict and social stress.
I believe that it will be extremely difficult to change the existing political will needed to secure and create development that takes into account our water limitations. That does not mean that we need to stop pushing for development that is responsive to our needs and the needs of our future generations. Our notion of development has to respond to our future needs as a society, not just to the excesses and bad planning that have been created under notions of grandeur that have ruled over any logic to protect agricultural land and water resources.
According to Herbert W. Yeo, former NM State Engineer, “There are approximately 31,435 irrigable acres in the South Valley. This represents approximately 94,305 acre/feet in pre-1907 water rights. The enormous cultural and capital values of these water rights are irrefutable. Culturally, they represent a historic treasure unique to the Southwest.” Using a value of $50,000 per acre/foot of water, this represents a South Valley capital asset worth in excess of $4.7 billion, less the value of water rights transferred from the ancient and existing acequias. This asset must be used for the benefits of the citizens that own water rights and to do smart planning around food systems. This capital asset has the potential to derive extensive benefit for South Valley community development and for the entire region.
So, understanding that we are in the middle of a drought, we need to do checks and balances on what is important for our food security. My take on is that we need to better prepare for the long ride and for the adversities that the lack of precipitation promises to bring. There is a lot that needs to be done to secure the future sustainability of our region, and unless we start thinking right now, when we get around to do it, it might be too late; our future generations will have to suffer the consequences of our irresponsible use of water today.
2 Río Jemez & Río Puerco Subregional Water Plan
Jorge Garcia, vice president of the South Valley Regional Association of Acequias, is the founder of the Center for Social Sustainable Systems. He is currently working with El Centro de la Raza at the University of New Mexico. firstname.lastname@example.org
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