The Movement of Water Across the Great Rural/Urban Divide

Commentary By KAY MATTHEWS

In the July 6 Albuquerque Journal Santiago Maestas, President of the South Valley Regional Association of Acequias, wrote an op-ed asking for more dialogue between rural farmers and ranchers and urban water planners on how to equitably share our dwindling water resources. I’d already been alerted to a crisis of confidence in the ability of the water planners to engage in meaningful dialogue by long time Placitas activist Lynn Montgomery, who claims that the good work of the Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly is being marginalized by the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) and the Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments (MRCOG). Lynn’s claim centers around the make-up of the steering committee assigned by the ISC to update the regional water plan, which he says is loaded with real estate interests and few who represent agricultural interests.

The Water Assembly is an all volunteer organization whose purpose is to “assure effective implementation of the Middle Rio Grande Regional Water Plan through an open, inclusive, and participatory process . . . for a sustainable water future that balances water use with renewable supply . . . .” Which translates to: how do you keep agricultural lands intact, tied to their water rights, when the powers that be and the moneyed interests want to move those water rights to the “highest and best use:” urban and industrial interests.

Without knowing the particulars of Lynn’s current accusations leveled at the ISC, it’s safe to say, based on my experience with the Taos Regional Water Plan and La Jicarita’s coverage of water policy over the course of the past 20 years (including this La Jicarita article that is on the Water Assembly’s blog), his concerns are grounded. Santiago Maestas sums up the situation in his op-ed piece: “As the Rio Grande dries up, the farmers and the endangered species are being threatened with extinction while cities continue to grow and consume more water.”

A nearly dry Rio Grande through Albuquerque, September 2013. Photo by John Fleck.
A nearly dry Rio Grande through Albuquerque, September 2013. Photo by John Fleck.

A recent article in Colorado Central, based in Salida, referenced the water planning situation in that state and raised a scenario that provides at least a modicum of hope that water planners there may do things a little differently. This monthly magazine was started by Ed and Martha Quillen (Ed was a longtime columnist for the Denver Post) and continues after Ed’s death several years ago under the editorship of Mike Rosso. One of its longtime contributors is George Sibley, who writes about water issues from the Upper Gunnison Basin. This month’s article is titled “Are We Part of a City-State,” which references the divide between Denver and the cities along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and the rest of the rural state, similar to our New Mexico divide along the Rio Grande Corridor. Sibley asks the question, why should the rest of the state, that probably has as much water as it needs, be engaged in water planning with the metropolitan areas that will need a lot more water to handle the projected 80 percent increase in growth by mid century: “The Front Range has a problem and needs for those of us in the rest of the state to see this as our problem too, hence a statewide water plan.”

He then asks, “why should we acknowledge this as our problem and if Denver is so necessary that its big problem is ours, too.”

Sibley uses the example of what happened in the Gunnison water basin during a blizzard that immobilized Denver in 2006 to answer that question: bare grocery store shelves. It could have also resulted in no natural gas or gasoline. The rural/urban divide may be more philosophical and cultural than structural: every one of the eight natural river basins in the state is dependent upon the goods and services that emanate from Denver.

The reverse is also true, of course. Sibley references an article by Ed Quillen in High Country News called “Is Denver Necessary?” written in 1993, where he compares Denver to the 19th century “Chicago model,” whereby a city sets itself up to draw all resources—wheat, lumber, meat—from the Midwest, as in Chicago, or the West, as in Denver, in order to sell back those repackaged resources to the hinterland (the “Chicago model” is explored in William Cronon’s groundbreaking book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West).

But Sibley also asks, “is there any decree saying this is the way it has to be, or ought to be?” This time he answers no, that the water plans for every water basin in the state could potentially create a “post-urban” culture, or “basin-centric cultures capable of watering and feeding themselves.” That means keeping water in its area of origin to underwrite agricultural production, providing energy resources from that water (along with the sun), “finally grow[ing] up to fit the land rather than just subdividing it into more real estate.” In this more “locally efficient society,” Sibley envisions sustainability extending to even greater economic and cultural independence, reducing the urban/rural dichotomy.

Many of us involved in New Mexico regional water planning envisioned the same kind of thing for our state. Instead, we got hugely expensive water rights adjudication settlements that depend upon the movement of thousands of acres of feet of water across the state and from basin to basin; buyouts of agricultural water rights to fulfill our compact obligations; transfers of agricultural water rights to compensate for groundwater pumping in our cities; and unrestrained “subdividing real estate” that Sibley warns against. As I said in my La Jicarita article “Capitalism and the Commons Engage in the Taos County Chamber, “Allowing natural resources to help determine sustainable growth and development patterns is not the way things work in a market economy.”

Just as I was ready to post this commentary I heard that the company Augustin Plains Ranch has again applied to the Office of the State Engineer (OSE) to transfer 17 billion gallons of water a year from the rural plains west of Socorro to populated areas in the Rio Grande Corridor. The company’s first application several years ago got shot down by the OSE and state district court, but apparently water brokers never dry up, even in a drought. So good luck George Sibley, in your quest for “post-urban culture.” Here in New Mexico I’m having a hard time seeing across the vast rural/urban divide to a post anything.








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