Environmental perspective: Time to invest in demand management instead of large-scale water projects

Two water projects under development in New Mexico came in for criticism by Denise Fort, professor of law at University of New Mexico and director of the Utton Transboundary Resources Center in Albuquerque. Fort is taking the side of the river and the fish in a state that has “no legal framework for protecting the ecological aspects of rivers and streams and has failed to protect the natural values in our rivers,” she said.

“Right now in New Mexico, the fish lie between agricultural and municipal interests,” Fort told the 57th Annual New Mexico Water Conference. “Water flows to cities and there is not always necessarily a benefit in that.” Environmentalists in the state are working “to make sure not just cities and rural people but our natural systems as well are protected,” she said.

“Looking to the future, New Mexico should manage water demands rather than investing in large scale water projects, Fort said. “These projects have high environmental costs, such as energy costs to pump the water to different places other than the river, from which water is taken.” She excluded most tribal projects, where issues are different.

Fort said that although the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004 “gave us the opportunity to get additional water for New Mexico,” the additional supply comes at a high cost. She said the state “doesn’t necessarily have a need for the water.” Part of the project would be paid for with federal funds, but not all. “I would ask why would the federal government make a commitment to provide ‘new water’ for New Mexico, rather than looking for cheaper solutions, which might be available closer at hand?”

Local communities are looking at lining leaking water systems and other measures, she said, but the lure of $66 million in “free federal money” is strong. “Once we remove the water from the river, we have pipeline, energy, and other projected costs to move the water to a place where it can be used,” she said.

She also criticized the Ute Lake project where Congress has committed $400 million for a pipeline to deliver water to eastern New Mexico. “Were there cheaper alternatives, including demand management to address those needs?” she asked. Unless the federal government can pay for the bulk of the project, demand management seems a better alternative, she said.

Among the hard choices the state must begin to wrestle with are programs to reuse water and actions to help determine what crops are appropriate to an arid state, she said. “From an environmental perspective, reuse is a direction the state should be going when it makes economic sense.” In the cases where reuse projects are underway, the environmental standards have been quite high and “should be reassuring to citizens,” she said.

In Australia, when a major river system was severely degraded, officials invested in buying back water rights and dedicated water to the environment, she said. In light of state population growth and expected climate change impacts, New Mexico “should look to Australia about what hard questions to ask about what we would like the next century to be like,” she said. “Let’s shape the future ourselves.”

Coupled to the Australian approach is the question of what crops and what lands are appropriate for agriculture, she said. In Australia, some crops were moved to more productive locations to make agriculture more efficient.

Responding to an audience comment about the Rio Grande being dry at some locations, Fort said, “It has to be our aspiration to actually have a living Rio Grande up and down the river. . . . State law does not provide protection for the ecological health of the river. The time has come to change the law and more explicitly recognize these other values or we will move to a commoditized version of water management.”

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