Mutually Beneficial Management of Water: Is it Possible?

Commentary By KAY MATTHEWS

The acequias in northern New Mexico are full and the tributaries are running rapidly to the Rio Grande during this unusually wet month of May. At least for now, parciantes have enough water for their fields, orchards, and gardens, and Rio Grande releases are supplying middle and lower basin irrigators.

The fact that we have the ability to water our agricultural lands is because native ancestors built these irrigation ditches when they first settled the river valleys of el norte and along the Rio Grande corridor, without sophisticated tools or implements to measure grade and elevation. They matched their wits with nature’s elements to create a system that supported both themselves and the ecological integrity of the river valleys. In other words, they “managed” nature in a mutually beneficial way.

The concept of “managed” nature remains an anathema to certain mainstream environmentalists and deep ecology advocates who see nature as the pristine “other” and humans as the invaders. La Jicarita was witness to the damages this kind of thinking caused in the forests of northern New Mexico in the 1990s and early 2000s. Movements like “Zero Cut”—no logging on public lands—and “Cattle Free”—no cattle on public lands—sought to disrupt land-based communities access to national forest resources and replace a traditionally work-based ethic with that of a visitor-only one. Again, man the intruder, nature best left alone. (This debate continues: see the Truthout interview with author and professor Christian Parenti.)

Community based foresters, ranchers, and acequia parciantes fought back, along with groups like the Quivira Coalition, which worked to restore ranchlands and watersheds through land-based partnerships. They won a few battles and changed a few perceptions, but many lost their livelihoods. Demographics continue to marginalize land-based economies, although resurgence in small farming and ranching creates hope.

But the management of water remains the key. As last week’s La Jicarita article about the Lower Rio Grande Adjudication so aptly demonstrates, the human ability to manage—or should I say “manipulate”— water has grown exponentially more sophisticated and problematic. Instead of gravity-based acequias we now have dams and pumps and canals and reservoirs to harvest and store water supplies that come from inter-basin diversions like the San Juan/Chama Project that crosses the continental divide. This water is contracted to both agricultural and urban use from northern Taos County south to the cities along the Rio Grande. The parties to the adjudication settlements in the northern part of the state—the Aamodt and the Abeyta— haggled over which settlement would get the available water rights from the Project.

Apportionment on the Colorado River is unbelievably complicated. The states dependent on the Lower Colorado Basin—Arizona, Nevada, and California—are watching what’s going to happen with the water depths at Lake Mead, which is at its lowest point ever, at 1, 077 feet and may drop to 1,054 (see John Fleck’s post) by the end of 2016 as manages hold back more water in Lake Powell, which is the reservoir for the Upper Colorado Basin. The Bureau of Reclamation released these projections: Observed unregulated inflow into Lake Powell for the month of April was or 61 percent of the 30-year average from 1981 to 2010; the forecast for May unregulated inflow into Lake Powell is 43 percent of the 30 year average; and the forecasted 2015 April through July unregulated inflow is 41 percent of average. As Lake Mead diminishes, the city of Las Vegas, which gets the majority of its water from the lake, is locked in battle with ranchers in northern Nevada over groundwater supplies the city wants to acquire.

The "bathtub ring" around the mountains of Lake Mead near the Hoover Dam is shown Thursday, April 23, 2015. Projections from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation indicate Lake Mead could fall low enough next year to reduce power generation and shut down one of the intake pipes used to supply the Las Vegas Valley with water. (Steve Andrascik/Las Vegas Review Journal)
The “bathtub ring” around the mountains of Lake Mead near the Hoover Dam is shown Thursday, April 23, 2015. Projections from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation indicate Lake Mead could fall low enough next year to reduce power generation and shut down one of the intake pipes used to supply the Las Vegas Valley with water. (Steve Andrascik/Las Vegas Review Journal)

In California, the huge farms of the Central Valley and the sprawling urban cities of Los Angles and San Diego get their water from two manmade water projects, the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, built in the 1930s through the 60s. Both projects take water from the rivers of the north and deliver it via dams, pumps, aqueducts, canals, and ditches to the valley farm lands and “spouts” of the cities. In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air (Thursday, April 30, 2015), journalist Mark Arax discussed the drought in California that is forcing farmers to revert to the groundwater supplies they previously used to water their fields before the “managed” surface water supplies were created.

Only now they’re pumping so much more and so much deeper that the ground is sinking. The wells are accessing aquifers that are thousands of years old. Listening to Arax talk, I was reminded of the plan to pump 1,000-foot deep wells in the Abeyta Settlement to provide water to El Prado Water and Sanitation District; aquifer water that is probably just as old and that will take decades to replenish.

th-2Arax also discussed how the water crisis has devolved into a fight of the “urbanite against the almond.” The largest and highest value crop in California these days is the nut crop, primarily almonds and pistachios. Many of these farmers years ago switched from cotton, which uses significantly more water than the higher value almond, which itself uses 10 percent of the allotted water in the state. Corporate farmers are planting tens of thousands of more “permanent” almond orchards, which unlike fields that can be left fallow to periodically conserve water, have to be watered every year to sustain the trees. But as Arax points out, the orchards are “not as permanent as the suburbs we’re planting” as farmers in the Central Valley start selling off their lands to developers: “Slowly the rivers are becoming rivers of suburbia.”

New Mexico’s drought continues despite a wetter spring and an almost-average snowfall over the winter. The San Juan/Chama Project has several times failed to deliver the full amount of contracted water. Snowpack in the Rio Grande headwaters that feed the San Juan/Chama Project was 35 percent of average in 2012. In 2002, only 6,000 acre feet of project water came through the Azotea Tunnel under the Continental Divide into Heron Lake. Yet the Office of the State Engineer, the Interstate Stream Commission, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs continue to approve adjudication settlements based on fully allotted San Juan/Chama water rights as well as intrastate cross-basin transfers and deep wells to meet projected future water demands.

Which brings us to the question: How do we decide what kind of management is good management? The engineering feat of the acequias was extraordinary. The building of dams and aqueducts and canals and ditches in California’s Central Valley turned it into the breadbasket of the country. But as we face continuing drought and climate change catastrophe, limits must be recognized and critical management decisions must be made. Unfortunately, that insidious “highest and best” use principle that is a euphemism for growth and development rears its ugly head over and over again in as diverse locales as New Mexico’s basin adjudications, California’s Central Valley, and Las Vegas’s water grab.

Closely related to this principle is the rationale that if we rigorously conserve water in these locales we’ll be able to continue with business as usual: moving water to money. In the Aamodt Adjudication, well users are urged to turn over their water rights to Santa Fe County; those who retain their wells must abide by new, much more restrictive regulations. Yet thousands of acre feet of water are being moved to the Valley to facilitate future use. In the Central Valley, corporate almond farmers are planting new orchards while hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland are being left fallow as houses creep to their borders. In Las Vegas, the city has implemented water conservation measures but continues to insist on the insurance of its now projected $15.5 billion dollar water transfer project. (Taos attorney Simeon Herskovits is one of the lawyers working with the ranchers protesting the transfer.)

This is what historian Richard White says about the Columbia River, but it could be said of the Rio Grande or the Colorado: “If the conversation is not about fish and justice, about . . . ways of life, about production and nature, about beauty as well as efficiency, and about how these things are inseparable in our own tangled lives, then we have not come to terms with our history on this river.”

What both Parenti, in his Truthout interview, and Richard White, author of The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, are talking about is that humans are capable of managing resources in a way that improves and protects human society and biodiversity. But, as Parenti says, “You cannot have systems that just grow and grow forever on a finite planet.” If free market forces continue to determine who’s going to get the water, then there’s not much hope for mutually beneficial management based on fish, justice, ways of life, production, and beauty.

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