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Thoughts and Hallucinations

The water op-ed piece for the Santa Fe New Mexican

Lessons from water — never enough

Sun Apr 28, 2013.
By Mike Agar

I’m a student of water. I’ll never graduate because water teaches more than a lifetime can absorb. I’m trying to figure out New Mexico water — the projects and compacts and acequias and districts and adjudications and Pueblos and diversions and groundwater, and I’m marveling at how water disputes take forever and cost a fortune in legal fees. Words like dysfunctional and maladaptive come to mind.
One thing is clear. There isn’t enough water, and odds are there will be less of it as the years go by. Then what happens? How is not enough water shared? Here in the West, the first who used the water get theirs first, and so on down the line until the water runs out, and then the hell with the rest of us. As long as the earlier users have put the water to “beneficial use.” What’s that? Pretty much anything except ignoring it completely.
As the drought continues, as the temperature slowly increases, is this really the best we can do? Do we just wait until it’s water-sharing time and line up according to who dipped into the river first? I’m not the only one to notice the problem. The water pros want to make it easier to move the rights around. The investors lust after all that deep brackish stuff. Some species insist on a river they can live in. Here and there, humans even want to free the river from its ditches. But it all still rests on, when the water hits the fan, first in gets it first.
Have I learned it right? This is the bedrock of water-sharing? There is no thinking outside this box or thinking without any boxes at all. Is this really the best we can do in the face of probable shortages that will affect everyone? In a state with centuries of experience with water? With communities and institutes and faculty filled with expertise scattered across the state? With experienced managers who know the rivers well? Do we just stick our heads in the dry, sandy soil and wait for the day when there just isn’t enough? Then line up by priority rights and let the lawsuits begin, courtrooms generously furnished with complimentary bottles of Evian?
As a student of water struggling to learn the twisted history we humans have wrapped it in, I mostly see denial. We need a plan, I think, for water-sharing and drought. Maybe there is one and I haven’t learned it yet, in which case apologies for the needless words. But it looks to me like we avert our eyes and plunge on ahead, approving developments, flushing toilets with drinking water, sucking the aquifers dry, irrigating acres of alfalfa. Hell, why not throw in another golf course?
The whole thing makes me thirsty.

Michael Agar worked in substance abuse for many years and thinks water might fit the specialty. His new book, The Lively Science: Remodeling Human Social Research, is out in late May, suitable for birthdays and bar mitzvahs.
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