Environmental Justice: Current Water Concerns and the Need to Educate Water Users

OP-ED: Hilario E. Romero

Heron Reservoir 2013
Heron Reservoir 2013
Heron Reservoir 1997
Heron Reservoir 1997

As water managers at federal, state and local levels try to determine how communities in New Mexico can get through this water season as we deal with rising temperatures and storms that bring only the wind’s drying effects, I am reminded of how we arrived at this situation as far back as the 1890s and early 1900s with the building of earthen dams on the Río Pecos and Río Grande.

They were built for irrigation projects, which initially failed. These dams were breached by floods and finally rebuilt by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. They caused bottom silt buildup, which kept sediment from revitalizing river ecosystems. Arthur Hamilton wrote in 1948 that “scores of statistics-laden studies dealing with the Middle Río Grande Valley of New Mexico have been turned out during the past 30 years. Authors reflect in their writing the common belief that what they see is appalling. The agricultural expert, hydrologist, soil conservationist and others in monotonous frequency tell of the most rapid land deterioration, greatest dissipation of water resources and largest silt production.”

Along the Río Santa Fe, villagers of Agua Fría in 1918 were tending to their collective 1,200 acres under cultivation that provided their families with fresh produce, feed for animals, meat and dairy products. Surplus was sold to small food markets in Santa Fe. Since 1880 and the building of the Stone Dam in Santa Fe’s upper watershed, Agua Fría’s water source was cut off periodically by the Santa Fe Water and Light Company, which became today’s PNM. As Santa Fe grew, the parciantes of the Acequia Madre protested to PNM various times for their water rights and by the early 1990s were finally granted a small number of acre-feet, but not enough to farm again.

As our reservoirs and groundwater aquifers continue to dissipate, it is time to look long-range at growth vs. water. Historically, water plans and projects managed to handle the large increases in growth. But since the Colorado River Compact was signed at Bishop’s Lodge near Santa Fe in 1922, the water picture has changed significantly due to climate change. The Boulder Canyon Project in 1928, the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact of 1948, the San Juan-Chama Project of 1962 and the Río Grande Compact of 1938 must all be studied, and a new compact needs to be negotiated that treats each state and its current water needs fairly. For New Mexico the allocation from the Colorado River Compact is 840,000 acre-feet per year. This year’s amount for all seven states has been lowered by 500,000 acre-feet.

At present, New Mexico and Colorado are involved in a complex lawsuit with Texas for Río Grande water Texas says has been illegally pumped below Elephant Butte Dam. The U.S. Supreme Court assigned a special master to this case who argued successfully for the U.S. and Mexico to be included in the suit based on the Colorado River Project and Río Grande Compact of 1938.

A gradual drop in all reservoir levels has continued over the past 23 years due to persistent drought. Recently, the Río Grande has dried up for over 20 miles just south of the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, 10 miles south of Socorro. Storms brought winds and little moisture to New Mexico this spring. As a result, fire season began early, on April 9. Future massive housing development projects like Santolina on the western portion of the Pajarito Land Grant continue to seek approval before the Bernalillo County Commission. An Italian billionaire ranch owner near Datil on the San Agustín plains has applied three times without any justification to the State Engineer’s Office to extract billions of gallons from that aquifer.

Santa Fe hosted the Next Generation Water Summit recently. It was mostly designed for builders, professional water managers and conservationists. There was not a huge number of community members in attendance. The first day was free but 3-day registration was costly. Santa Fe needs a water dialogue like the 24th Annual Water Dialogue that was held at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque in January. It was free to all, inclusive and comprehensive.

Santa Fe’s average water use per-person is skewed by users that consume large amounts of water. I am talking about those that can afford to pay for amounts far in excess of most homes, businesses or industry. We need to educate these people; assess why they are using so much and help them find ways to save water.

As of May 17, 2018 the totals for Santa Fe water were as follows: Santa Fe Canyon reservoir storage, 31.13 percent, Canyon Water Treatment Plant, 2.052 million gallons, Buckman Water Treatment Plant, 7.854 million gallons, City Wells, 2.371 million gallons and Buckman Wells, 0.000.

As climate change and drought continue in the Southwest, we need more long-range planning to take place among all parties: government specialists, businesses, acequia parciantes, tribes, villagers and neighborhood associations. We need to look at all aspects of how water shortages affect all of us. We can no longer pretend that this is temporary and that we will have all the water we need. We have to consider future generations yet to be born who will have to attempt to deal with this same reality.

Hilario E. Romero is a former New Mexico State Historian, a retired professor of history, Spanish and education and a former Federal Grants administrator.

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