The View from Here

Overdue plan for state’s water future


For the past five decades or longer, the state Legislature has been planning for what we will do when the oil runs out. We’ve set up permanent funds to ensure we’ll be able to keep our schools open and provide other essential services, tucking away money that is needed now.

We haven’t planned nearly as well for the depletion of an even more precious resource: water.

The state didn’t even have a water plan until 1987, and the one drafted that year led more to regional competition than conservation. Many of the plans submitted to the Interstate Stream Commission projected increased usage, often coming at the expense of neighboring districts.

Recent legislation gives the state a new, and perhaps final opportunity to prepare for the hotter, drier conditions that are already here.

The Water Security Planning Act is intended to bring new rigor to the water planning process. According to the ISC, the Act “integrates the best available science and data, including the New Mexico Water Data Initiative, to guide regional water planning in New Mexico, ensuring transparency, objectivity and professionalism.”

Before establishing new rules, the ISC will gather public input from residents throughout the state. The meeting in Las Cruces will be from 3 to 7 p.m. July 24 at City Hall. More information on that can be found at

The group Rio Grande WAVES (Water Advocates for Vital Environmental Sustainability) will host a presentation by hydrologists Fred Phillips and Peggy Barroll 6 p.m. July 17 at NMSU’s Domenici Hall to help local residents better understand the issues ahead of the ISC meeting.

While improved planning is long overdue, no plan is going to bring more water to our parched state. According to State Climatologist Dave DuBois, the evaporation rate at Elephant Butte Reservoir is eight inches for every one degree Celsius increase in the temperature. He predicts the Four Corners snowpack that feeds our lakes and rivers will decline substantially by the year 2070 and that our overall water supply will decrease by half in the next century.

We talk a lot in New Mexico about how much we value water. More precious than gold, we say. But the crass truth is, we value things based on price, and water is cheap. The city charges $13.60 for the first 3,000 gallons. You can get more than 23,000 gallons for another $5.23.

To be clear, municipal water use is not the problem and I’m not calling for increased rates on residents. It’s only about 15 percent of our overall usage. And we’ve done a pretty good job cutting back. You hardly ever see sprinklers watering sidewalks anymore. But we can’t solve this with low-flow toilets.

The hard decisions are going to have to come where the water is being used, and that’s in agriculture. While municipal use has remained flat, agricultural pumping has increased out of necessity to compensate for our lack of rain.

Will crops that require flood irrigation be sustainable in the future? If not, how can we help farmers transition to crops that use less water?

Any water plan we make now will be subject to the pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling on claims made by Texas alleging lack of required delivery. But it’s clear that we need to start treating water like a limited resource and prioritizing for the future.

Walter Rubel can be reached at

Walt Rubel Column, water