What The Thunder Won’t Say

What The Thunder Won’t Say

Bruce Thomson, the retiring director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources program, says a lot of the solutions proposed for the state – from desalination, to piping water to withering communities, to re-using waste water – are not the answer. But there are ways to help.

For a while during New Mexico’s deepening drought, with its wildlands aflame and its expanses of empty lands bleached and browned by a relentless sun, people seemed likely to take the water crisis here seriously.

Now that some generous annual monsoon downpours at last have dampened and unwilted the land, people are primed to forget.

So worries aloud Bruce Thomson, who stepped down this summer as head of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program and who remains a longtime advocate and educator of the public on water issues here. He wants people to remember the drought and its deeper lessons – and respond by being much more responsible about the resource without which the state quickly would wither.

He outlined some of his views recently during a talk he gave by invitation to a “Contemporary Issues” class in the Water Resources Program, held in UNM’s shaded Economics Building. It is a message he says he wants all New Mexicans to hear – not just scientists, engineers, academics and water managers.

The talk is a stroll through a botanical garden of hydrological issues with many themes and varieties, and Thomson is known to challenge assumptions.

Among his conclusions are that New Mexico is facing “multiple train wrecks” in tending to its most precious resource, but hope somehow abides.

Desalination doesn’t provide a sustainable supply, he says. There are no more opportunities to raid neighboring watersheds for big water-diversion projects as New Mexico has done in the past. The popular idea of re-using waste water won’t really help. The controversial process of underground fracking to recover hard-to-get oil and gas doesn’t really hurt, in terms of water supply, he suggests. Conservation is as good as gold. And the state engineer should emerge as a greater authority in New Mexico, with real power to assure water sustainability.

What the clouds conceal

Regarding the recent rains, Thomson tells the class, taught by Bob Berrens and John Fleck, that even a monsoon season like this one, which exuberantly pours out its refreshing rains, has little overall effect, for example, on water flow in the Rio Grande, or on what is reckoned as the state’s consumption of water from it.

He points to a chart that shows the river’s flow peaks in May with runoff from snowmelt. The monsoons, from July to November, barely register by comparison in increasing river flow. A generous monsoon will not save New Mexico from its dangling sword of Damocles. It may make the desert green, he says – and the latest rains have helped – but in the grand scheme things it does little to satisfy the state’s thirst for water for its cities, industry, recreation, environment, and agriculture.

“I don’t want to seem like Old Man Gloom,” he later tells students, plus a small audience of curious visiting professionals, who are making the class something of an event. Nevertheless, he says, “We could use a crisis.”

A disaster, such as the continuing shriveling of rain, could help persuade New Mexicans to address what in fact is a dark forecast in the state with the least surface water in the nation and, recently, with its most extreme levels of drought – a state where the pressure to consume water is increasing, and water supply is declining.

Later, in an interview, he says he believes the state can solve its problems.

“Bad things happen, and we always seem to be able to muddle through,” he says. The state just needs motivation and a willingness to make tough decisions.

A complicated message

It is not just the rains that may be discouraging, however.

The students in the class – budding hydrologists, economists and other prospective experts – appear to be engaged, asking insightful questions about water, a subject that can be mind-numbingly complicated, especially here. New Mexico, for just one example, has been at work for decades adjudicating thousands of claims on water rights and still faces decades more work. But most folks are not hydrologists, or economists, or attorneys, and the details of water problems can be difficult to follow.

This is understandable, says Thomson, who remains a research professor in civil engineering at UNM and is a board member of the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority. He is intimate with the arcana of water in New Mexico, having written numerous papers and given many speeches on it. His abiding interest, however, is translating the complexity into terms that can be grasped broadly.

Here, in relatively simple terms, is some of the bad news about water in New Mexico, some of the good news – not nearly as much of it, by comparison – and some possible solutions, in Thomson’s view, as expressed in the UNM class, interviews and papers.

A dark forecast

New Mexico is a desert state without much water in the first place, he notes. The state has limited surface water. It has groundwater but is mining it – taking it out without adequately replenishing it – to the extent that water tables in virtually all of its aquifers are declining. He notes in a paper on interbasin water transfers that in Eastern New Mexico, for example, where the shallow Ogalalla Aquifer is dropping rapidly, that the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at UNM projects populations in Curry, Quay and Roosevelt counties will begin declining in 30 years as water gets harder and harder to tap. Groundwater will not last forever.

The state has endured three years of record drought with no end clearly in sight. Droughts come and go, often after lingering for several years, but global climate change appears to be warming things up in general and for good, he tells the class. This is likely to make the climate here hotter and drier, causing more water to evaporate and bringing a longer and thirstier growing season and generally increasing demand for water – and up to a 29 percent reduction in runoff from snowmelt, which is the most important source of stream flows, by 2080.

The water New Mexico has is over-appropriated, in any case, he says. That is, the state has issued more permits to pump and divert water than actual, wet water exists in all of the state’s watersheds. For one example, some consumers – including the city of Rio Rancho and Intel – have permits to draw water but have not obtained the water rights to back the permits up. These rights are getting so difficult and so expensive to acquire that these permit-holders may never be able to get the water rights they need, meaning there eventually will not be enough water to serve them.

When the water supply tightens enough, a huge majority of New Mexicans – folks who live in cities and towns – could be left high and dry. New Mexico assigns priority rights to water users based on who was here, using water, first, Thomson explains. This means that in times of drought the oldest users will get first crack at all the water they’re entitled to, while the latecomers may get nothing. Though most folks may think the oldest users here were the American Indians, in reality the fish and nearby wildlife were here first.  For this reason, the federal Endangered Species Act says New Mexico must keep water in its rivers to protect the Rio Grande silvery minnow, the bluntnose shiner and other fish in our rivers.  Next, if anything is left, the Indian pueblos will get their share. Then what’s left will be divvied up among other users. The state has not yet finished working things out so that this assignment of water will follow a rational process that keeps everyone from dying of thirst or fleeing the state.

Meanwhile, other states downstream and upstream from New Mexico – such as Texas and Colorado – by compact have the right to demand a certain amount of water that flows or is about to flow through New Mexico, Thomson says. And they already are doing so. These states have much greater resources, including political influence, to defend what they argue are their rights to this water. In a tight spot, these states could be subtracting critical water from the Land of Enchantment.

The state’s population is steadily growing, he notes. City dwellers have been doing a great job of conserving lately, but even so, people use water, and there is only so much people can conserve. At some point, consumption will increase to keep up with population growth.

The most popular solutions to water shortages have questionable benefits.

Water diversion projects, such as the Ute Pipeline, for example, which will transport water south from Ute Reservoir on the Canadian River in northern Quay County, promise a certain amount of relief. But Thomson has raised concerns about whether the supply of pipelined water there is sustainable or reliable given drought and depletions that will follow from global warming. The pipeline would help cities in the area, such as Clovis and Portales. But the projected safe yield of 24,000 acre-feet per year from the pipeline project would supply only 6 percent of the total water used in the three counties – Quay, Curry and Roosevelt – that it would serve. The rest of the demand would be mostly for agriculture. Water for farms is declining. It is questionable whether it makes sense to build a pipeline to cities, with significantly agricultural economies, whose surrounding farms are disappearing. Similar issues confront other diversion projects.

Desalination also is a popular proposal, as it is estimated by some that 75 percent of New Mexico’s underground water resources are brackish and undrinkable. Desalination plants could make that water available. But Thomson is adamant that this is an unsustainable solution, because these supplies of water are not replenished and will run out – not to mention the expense of desalination and the problems disposing of salts removed from the water. Tapping unreplenished groundwater just pushes the same problem on future generations.

Another proposed solution is widespread water reuse – as in, for instance, using Albuquerque’s waste water from sewage to irrigate parks, or capturing runoff from rainstorms, storing it in cisterns and so on, instead of letting it return directly to the river. It sounds like a good idea, but it actually doesn’t help much, Thomson says. Water use in New Mexico is measured in terms of consumption. Albuquerque, for example, takes in roughly 100,000 acre feet of water a year and returns 60,000 acre-feet to the river, so our consumptive use is 40,000 acre feet per year – withdrawal minus return flow. If the city starts using from the 60,000 it normally would return to the Rio Grande – its waste water – without changing anything else, it still would use 40,000 acre feet per year. But it also would be diminishing water that is returned to the river to satisfy the state’s water compacts with Texas. This compact water requirement already is factored into the city’s return flow. Albuquerque would have to make up that difference, say, by mining more water from its aquifer and sending it down the river.

Without real help from water diversion projects or desalination or waste-water reuse, a growing New Mexico is left with decisions about how to distribute its existing water rights – meaning, say, transferring water rights from water-intensive farms to conservation-minded cities. About 75 percent of the water taken from the Rio Grande Basin now is used for irrigated agriculture. Some 19 percent of water withdrawals go to domestic and public water-supply users. New Mexico water laws strongly favor development, Thomson says. Already urban users are pressing to acquire water rights from farms to slake their thirst, in effect shutting down farms to support urban growth. As water rights continue to transfer to cities, New Mexico’s landscape is destined to change radically. Is this a good thing for the state? What will the state’s urban and rural landscapes look like? Such questions remain unanswered.

New Mexico is still adjudicating its water rights – that is, deciding via the courts who owns how much water and what priority date are recognized for the owners. It cannot be strictly determined how to ladle out water in a crisis unless these decisions are made. It has taken decades for the state to complete adjudication in a few portions of the state, Thomson says. But huge portions – including the Middle Rio Grande, where Albuquerque lies – remain unadjudicated. There are decades more work to do.

There’s even more. The bottom line, he says, is that water is the fundamental resource. New Mexico can get by without a lot of things, but without water, the economy, and the state, will quickly die.

The good news

Not all the news is bad, Thomson says – there just isn’t as much of it.

New Mexico urban users are getting better at conservation. Somebody is listening. Despite Albuquerque’s continued population growth, its use of water has been leveling off – even declining – with the encouragement of city officials, who are running conservation campaigns.  This is a real savings in water use – a genuine source of additional new water, Thomson says. The question is how long Albuquerque can stick with using, say, just 40,000 acre feet of water per year while growing. This can’t go on forever.

The state at least is in the process of adjudicating water rights and is taking steps to deal with higher-priority water users – the Indian pueblos and reservations – to secure water rights for lower-priority users. Examples include New Mexico supporting the $1 billion Navajo Water Project, in exchange for the tribe giving up its claims to 90,000 acre feet per year of water, to which it has priority water rights, to the state. The process has a long way to go, though, and settling with the tribes has proved expensive.

Thomson says that fracking – the controversial process of injecting highly pressurized water mixed with sands and chemicals to break up rock formations deep underground to extract gas and oil – does not much affect water consumption in the state. But it does provide jobs and income and tax revenues. Fracking wells don’t use all that much water, and the water used is returned into the environment. The quality of the water is not good, he allows, but in terms of volume, it is not a significant factor.

State water planners at least have a clear picture of New Mexico’s predicament and of possible solutions. The state also has a history of being innovative – for example, in the way it recognized groundwater as a public resource and linked it with the use of surface water, and in requiring permits for the new appropriation of surface water. It is ahead of other states in such ways. But plans are one thing. Implementing them is something else.

The solutions

Thomson says the problems can be handled, but this will require some serious changes.

One would be the creation of a real water czar – as in somebody with real power – for the state. The point person for water in New Mexico is the state engineer. The State Engineer’s Office understands water issues here but won’t have the authority to do much about them until the adjudication process is complete. Thomson favors an approach called “active water resource management” that would give the office power to oversee changing subdivision rules to require sustainable water supplies, the power to enforce such rules, the regulation of domestic wells, which are virtually unrestricted in the state, the power to supervise carrying out regional water plans and the power to set priorities for the fulfillment of water rights during a drought.

Another is for the state to pass laws requiring mandatory conservation during a drought. Conservation is voluntary in New Mexico at the moment.

Yet another is to find a way to make the water-rights adjudication process more affordable and move ahead more quickly.

New Mexico has settled questions with the Navajo Nation and five of the 19 pueblos regarding Indian water rights, so that it’s clear who will get how much water now and when it comes to crunch time. Tribes are showing an increasing willingness to negotiate. The process is costly – $1.3 billion to date – but if it keeps water conflicts out of the courts, it’s worth it, Thomson says.

The state also should develop water markets or other methods to reallocate water resources rationally – say, that would transfer water rights from farms to cities.

A tall order

To do such things will take political will based on popular support. The trouble is, all of this stuff is complicated, and involves regulation and spending and possibly significant lifestyle changes throughout the state.
Maybe no wonder, then, that “all of a sudden it rains, and everything is OK,” Thomson says.

For more information

To learn more about water issues in New Mexico, check out “Water Matters.” This is a regularly updated publication of the Utton Transboundary Resources Center at UNM. It is a beefy publication of 272 pages, but it is written for popular consumption by legislators, students and citizens as well as by policy makers. Here is the link: http://uttoncenter.unm.edu/projects/water-matters.php


(Feature image by David Bailey.)

This piece was written by:

Jack Ehn's photo

Jack Ehn

Jack Ehn is the former editorial page editor for the late Albuquerque Tribune and now teaches journalism and English writing classes at Central New Mexico Community College. He worked for newspapers for 31 years and before that in printing and production. He is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and St. John's College.

Contact Jack Ehn

Honorary Subscription

Is your time on New Mexico Mercury worth the price of a cup of coffee a week?  Then click on the button below to purchase a recurring monthly subscription.

Payment Options


One-time Payment

If you'd like to pay for the content you've enjoyed on New Mexico Mercury with a payment when it's convenient for you, click on the button below for a one-time purchase.


Responses to “What The Thunder Won’t Say”