Can A Good Politician Make It Rain?

Keep the faith, New Mexico

In arid New Mexico it’s often said that if you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes: it’ll change. Waiting out a drought cycle will take a little longer—like, half a lifetime. And in the current dry spell, the whole surface of this part of the mountain West is what probably will change.

It’s already obvious that dense pinon forests, from the second-home-dotted I-25 corridor southeast of Santa Fe to the undeveloped U.S. 285 stretch between Los Ojos and Tres Piedras, are already dead. The good news is that enough healthy pinons may have survived the drought-induced beetle infestation to space themselves into healthy Southwest savannahs.

Further into the drought, as “normal” snowpacks fail to appear, the lakes behind storage and flood-control dams could be reduced to mud puddles and the highly condominiumized ski resorts could be buying up down-valley water rights to feed high kilowatt snowmaking machines.

Prayer aside, there’s not much we can do to make the universe think snow, although a lot of government people and plaintiff’s lawyers seem to be working on the legal aspects of the problem. But these public-spirited problem-solvers have been slower than God.

The “Aamodt” water rights adjudication case filed for the Pojoaque and Nambe drainages north of Santa Fe by the late longtime New Mexico State Engineer Steve Reynolds in 1966, is still unresolved. The “Texas vs. New Mexico” case in which Texas claimed the wily Reynolds shorted water deliveries required by the Pecos River Compact was in court 14 years.

And in 1987 the New Mexico Legislature authorized regional water planning. The State Engineer’s Office consequently divided the state into 16 regions and got to work, hampered, it said, by inadequate funding, considering the intensive data gathered on wells, surface diversions, beneficial uses, and so forth. Twenty-six and a half years later, six of the 16 regional water plans had been completed.

Now comes Gov. Bill Richardson, silver spurs jangling in the deepening dust. He wanted a statewide water plan. Now! The 2003 Legislature authorized it under an emergency bill signed into law in April. Hearings and town meetings were held statewide, a prelminary draft was released in October, and a 77-page “final” draft was finished in time for a meeting of the Interstate Stream Commission on Wednesday (Dec. 17).

Don’t be misled. It’s not a physical water plan. It does not propose water projects with the usual aqueducts, storage facilities or wastewater recovery systems, and such. It’s not even a legalistic water plan, with specific proposals for amendments to the state’s water law in time of drought and population growth. But it is a statement of water policy that assures protection of all interests—urban, industrial and agricultural—with the possible exception of real estate developers.

“For the 21st Century the State must develop water market and water banking mechanisms that will facilitate the voluntary movement of water from old uses to new, with the marketplace providing the appropriate rewards and the state providing the necessary safeguards,” it says.

Translation: don’t worry about radical government takeover of the free market in water rights.

Neither does it call for radical state legal challenges aimed at the Endangered Species Act, the several interstate water compacts, Indian sovereignty, the Winters Doctrine, the ancient acequia system or the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

It does, however, reflect the sentiments of the majority: rural witnesses, who were there, the report suggests, “due to fear of the loss of their water rights and their way of life.” There was a “general” consensus supporting various restorations of riparian areas, but, “only if they do not compromise existing state water law, rights and interests.”

As to questions affecting real estate developers, there was a “broad” consensus among witnesses that growth should be tied to water availability. With 90 per cent of the state’s population dependent upon wells for drinking water, it’s not surprising that the public in these hearings “strongly recommended,” the document says, that the State Engineer have authority to deny applications for new wells in some areas. And since these freely approved domestic wells usually are associated with individual septic tanks, the public apparently wants more communities to develop sewage treatment systems.

In the present climate, both political and physical, two other New Mexico water reports were issued about the same time: an edition of the State Bar Bulletin devoted to water problems and a handsomely illustrated discussion by Think New Mexico culminating in proposal for a “Strategic River Reserve.”

That proposal was inspired by the image of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve created by Congress in 1975 in reaction to the Arab oil embargo, but wait: one is 570 million barrels of crude oil in underground storage, the other would be a “reserve” of water rights bought up and held by the state.

The difference tells a tale. Namely, that New Mexico’s response to drought is being led by lawyers and political opinion experts, not by hydrologists, geologists, meteorologists and the like.

We need both, of course, but the physical side, it seems, is under represented. I would like to see more comment like the isolated sentence in the Bar Bulletin essay by Elizabeth Zeiler of the State Engineer’s Office:

“Although New Mexico’s prior appropriation water law provides a basis for balancing supply and demand, in practice, New Mexico often lacks both the physical and the administrative infrastructure to ensure water is available in order of priority.”

In other words, all that paper won’t get you a bucket of water. Government so much prefers policy problems to real problems.