U.S. Water News Online
ALBUQUERQUE -- All life needs water to survive, but there
isn't enough to go around in the high desert of New Mexico.
In the coming millennium, barring technological or climatological
miracles, there will be a limit on the number of people who can live
in the state's thirsty cities and dusty, rural farms and cattle
Bluegrass lawns may be left to wither when watering guidelines
become prohibit ions, and more restaurants will wait for patrons to
ask for water before serving it with their meals.
And water will cost more. The city of Albuquerque, with New
Mexico's biggest population center, already is in the midst of a rate
hike that will boost the price about 30 percent over seven years. So
just like garden plants that send out roots seeking their share of
life-giving water, New Mexicans are staking their claims to the
scarce resource -- mostly in court -- but also using innovative ways
of channeling water from other states.
Rights on the water that flows through New Mexico are mired in a
tangle of claims and counterclaims that some experts say will be
argued in court for at least the next half-century.
The first recorded water claim dates to 1690, when Spanish
settlers were putting down roots, said state engineer Tom Turney, the
man responsible for overseeing the state's water.
Thousands of claims have been staked since then -- by farmers,
ranchers, Indian pueblos, cities, and others.
In Albuquerque, until the late 1980s, experts proclaimed that the
aquifer supplying the city was unlimited. Recent evaluations of how
water moves on the surface and underground have forced water managers
to take a more sober accounting of their supply.
They thought the Rio Grande -- a liquid lifeline spanning the
state -- would recharge the aquifer as fast as the city drained it.
But now, with a better understanding of how the river and aquifer
interact, it is clear the city is depleting the aquifer faster than
So Albuquerque is channeling in water from the Colorado River
using the Rio Grande and Chama River as the pipelines to serve its
industry and 450,000 residents.
If the city is able to use the imported water and if conservation
programs are fully implemented, the city will be able to support
about 775,000 people up to the year 2040, said John Stomp, who heads
Albuquerque's Water Resources Management division.
The city has allowed some of its channeled water to be used to
help keep the Rio Grande from drying up, which helps protect the
silvery minnow, a federally listed endangered species. But as the
city grows and its needs increase, it is becoming more stingy.
It recently went to court to get a ruling it hopes will ensure the
water won't be appropriated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to
support the struggling minnow's habitat.
Some environmentalists say the city's plans, allowing the
population and industry to grow, will doom many of the native plants
and animals living along the Rio Grande.
``If the city carries out its development plans, it will kill the
Rio Grande,'' said John Horning, with the Santa Fe-based Forest
Horning already worries about collapsing ecosystems along the Rio
Grande as the cottonwood bosque, dying from a lack of seasonal
flooding, gives way to two non-native water hogs -- the salt cedar
and Russian olive. Four native fish already have disappeared from the
Rio Grande and the silvery minnow would be the fifth, Horning said.
The amount of water needed to ensure a proper habitat for the
minnow could support a city the size of Albuquerque, Turney said.
And keeping that much water in the river could prevent the state
from filling the Elephant Butte Reservoir, which is used to store
water claimed by New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.
Horning said farmers need to become more efficient water users as
well. ``Agricultural users divert 80 percent of the surface flow in
the Rio Grande,'' he said. ``They are still diverting massive amounts
and they don't even use it.''
Evaporation and seepage accounts for much of the loss, he said.
Agricultural water users on a stretch of the river between Cochiti
and the Bosque del Apache south of Socorro -- from pueblos to members
of traditional Spanish farming communities built around irrigation
ditches called acequias -- are working on just such problems through
the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.
Conservation is vital for the district to ensure its high-desert
farmers get the water they need for their crops and livestock.
Farmers are using lasers to make sure their land is level, which
shortens the time they need to keep the gates open to flood their
land, and a new metering program will allow the district to get a
detailed picture of how water is being used and what efforts can be
made to make the operation more efficient.
The district, using the water it stores in reservoirs, could
weather about three or four years of drought conditions. ``We can
spread the pain,'' district chief Subhas Shah said.
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