instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

Thoughts and Hallucinations

New Mexico Mercury piece on water

The New Mexico Mercury, an internet newspaper, published a piece about a water conference at I'll reprint that here now.

Water in New Mexico: The Quest for New Tools and Rules
September 11, 2013
Features, Politics / Current Events, Envirolocal
By Mike Agar

I just attended a water conference. It was a gathering entitled “Transformational Solutions for Water in the West.” A big deal. Ballroom full of people. Big shot plenaries, like Senator Udall, one of the few who give me hope for Washington, and Scott Verhines, the state engineer speaking of ways to solve water conflict without years of expensive litigation. Sandia National Labs’ water people and the Water Resources Research Institute from NMSU were the main sponsors. Lots of information spilled out of a series of fifteen-minute talks, no breaks except for lunch, and the organizers kind of rushed that when they came in shouting “The Senator is coming, the Senator is coming, clean your plates and get back in the ballroom.” Interesting day, for me anyway, from an educational point of view. But a force for “transformational change” in New Mexico water policy? I’m not so sure.

The first problem I had was this: Bombarding a crowd with rapid-fire fifteen-minute presentations, high quality though most of them were, isn’t going to “transform” anything. There was no time to digest the blitz, and the main opportunity for conversation was a waiting line at the floor mike or the few moments when organizers summarized a few themes. Fragments here and bits and pieces there. Hurry, look at your watch, no time. New Mexico needs to transform its water policy, pretty much everyone agreed on that. It was the right goal but the wrong process to achieve it.

In the early light of the morning after, a couple of things struck me. One was a classic American theme--technological optimism and governance pessimism. By “technology” I mean ways to use less water and/or find more of it to use. I heard a lot of good news in that area, news to me at any rate, wastewater re-use playing a starring role.

But governance? I’m using “governance” in the post 1980 sense. It does not just mean “government.”  “Government” can be a part of the mix, but governance means social networks that link it with the private sector and civil society in webs of authority that make the rules and implement them and enforce them in different institutional domains, “water” being the domain of interest at the conference. The New Mexico water governance network is a labyrinth, both in its history and its contemporary form. No one at the conference, including me, seemed to know how to even begin transforming it.

Governance was neglected, with the exception of some innovations in local water conservation reported by urban managers. Worse, important and politically powerful parts of the water governance network received little attention. The absent elephant in the room, as one member of the audience named it, were the farmers. They use almost 80% of the state’s water. (“Farmer” includes everything from agribusiness to family farms to Nuevomexicano acequia irrigation - very different things). How can one imagine transforming water policy without them? Why no farmers at the podium, critical as they are?

Or what about the “bad guys,” from the point of view of people like me, the real estate developers, or the rising tide of frackers? A developer at a recent hearing in Santa Fe County was quoted as saying that water wasn’t a problem. What planet was he from?  What about the growth of fracking? Frackers, said a web page that appeared to do the calculations carefully, use about five million gallons of water per well, or roughly 15.3 acre feet, this before the effects on water quality are considered. Or how about golf courses? An NPR sports reporter says that a golf course in Palm Springs, a desert-like location, consumes about a million gallons a day. Developers and frackers wield a lot of political power in New Mexico. No water policy transformation will happen, I’d guess, if they opposed it.

And speaking of the government part of governance, what about legislators? Senator Udall was impressive, the state engineer was there, other government types as well. But any transformation of water policy has to involve new initiatives in the New Mexico legislature. The recent session featured more water talk than any in recent memory, but little came of it. There were some important new laws. Senator Wirth, for example, pushed a law through that aimed at the notorious “double dipping.” The phrase means that one buys land with water rights, sells the rights, and then drills domestic wells. However, no state legislators spoke at the conference. I don’t know if there were any in attendance or not. Obviously not even minor changes in water policy—much less a transformation—will happen without legislative action.
Farmers and developers and frackers and state legislators have a perspective on water that has to be part of any conversations about transforming water policy. The conference was strong on researchers, urban water managers, and reports of technological innovations that would save more water and add new sources of it. Comments on Pueblo sovereignty and environmental concerns also surfaced in presentations and comments. But then how would those views that I listened to all day jibe with the absent farmers, developers, frackers and state legislators? For the first three, I’m not sure they would have attended unless they were masochists. It’s easy to see them as high-use selfish villains in a time of drought, a drought that may extend into the long-term. For the last of the four, the state legislators, I could see them attending and, in the best case scenario, presenting the trade-off among interests in today’s zero sum water game and aligning themselves with one rather than another.

For instance, my area of the state has legislators--Senator Wirth and the sadly late Representative Easley--who excel at explaining legislative process and who attend to the real world. They also talk water policy in ways I agree with, more or less. And I grew up in the California Valley. I couldn’t demonize farmers—“ranchers” we said--if I had to. I went to school with their kids. I paid for college in part by hunting the Grape Leaf Skeletonizer in valley vineyards. Developers and frackers are more of a problem, for me anyway. They look more like the grab the water and run and the hell with the rest of you types. So do a few of the super-rich in Santa Fe who suck water out of unmetered domestic wells to reproduce a rain forest behind the walls. Still, after all those years working as a researcher and adviser in the U.S. drug field, I know it’s possible to listen and learn another perspective, even if you don’t agree with it, and then try and negotiate, if the listening and learning is reciprocal and cooperation aimed at a common goal are in the air.

The truth is, no policy transformation in water governance will happen in New Mexico without those missing voices from the conference.  Foucault writes of the connection between power and knowledge. There was plenty of knowledge at that conference, but a lot less power. Senator Udall was a breath of fresh political air, and he’s working to create a state-wide water awareness that provides a context for change. But one U.S. Senator isn’t enough.

It’s daunting to try and imagine a transformation in water policy that would be supported given all those perspectives – both of those present and those who were missing. That’s why the main plausible transformations that came out of the conference were the conservation and technological ones. Use less water and find more of it to use. Given the complicated and contradictory New Mexico water governance network of today, technology might be the only possible answer. Augment supply with technology so that everyone will have enough water to do what they want. Who cares about governance as long as there’s enough water to go around? That solution has its own serious problems, one of which was mentioned in a couple of presentations. Water will cost more. It will flow in an economic diversion channel that will amplify the old saying that water flows uphill to money. It will add to the trend of recent times, the growing disparity of wealth. On the other hand, it will place an increasingly valuable commodity in the hands of the traditional senior water rights holders—Native peoples, Nuevomexicanos, and Anglo farmers with rights from the old days, a kind of “goes around comes around” historical parable. It’s difficult to sort all this out.

A technological miracle would ensure that more water would flow to those who could afford its higher cost. But water is a basic need that, no matter how poor you are, you still have to have.  That is a problem of governance, not of technology. The solution to that problem, I think, is the transformation we seek, because the technology is already on the way. I don’t think it’s impossible, a just mix of new technology and a dramatically different kind of water governance. But its creation will require conversations among people who know how to balance their zero-sum interests against a bigger picture of water-sharing in a time of shortage, people who at the moment aren’t talking with each other much.

Finding the right small number of those people, the kind of people who were at the conference and the kind of people who were not, and supporting a conversation that could go on for awhile with a lot of breaks for schmoozing, that would be a very good thing to do.

Life is interesting.
Be the first to comment