If we don't keep water flowing, people will be going ... away
Published: Saturday, May 17th, 2003
Eastern New Mexico is running out of water. A series of stories in last week’s newspapers makes that clear to everyone. We must do two things: Find another source for water and reduce our water-usage rate. If we don’t, many eastern New Mexico communities could be ghost towns by 2040. The best immediate solution to our dilemma is for the federal government to return some of our tax dollars to help pay for the proposed $212 million Ute Pipeline. It would carry water from a reservoir in Quay County, and that water could sustain us another century or so — longer if we become better stewards of this precious natural resource. Without a pipeline or a change in our water-consumption habits, today’s elementary-school students could be the last generation to populate this region. For the long term, 100 years from now and beyond, other water sources will have to be found. By then, our experience with the Ute Pipeline certainly could prove useful in figuring how to overcome those truly long-distance delivery challenges. If we can deliver natural gas and oil thousands of miles from where it is mined, then water can be transferred to areas where it is in short supply. Another long-term option is to find a safe, cost-effective way to mine and purify the brackish water below the Ogallala Aquifer’s “Red Bed.” This impervious red clay layer is the foundation on which sits the aquifer, this region’s main underground water source. Lee Tillman, executive director of the Eastern Plains Council of Governments and a leading regional water expert, predicts future technology will enable us to desalinate highly brackish water. That will happen by using lower-cost energy, he said, such as wind-generated energy, that can be stored in fuel cells and used later. No one knows exactly when the Ogallala will be drained. We do know the region’s settlers dug the first wells by hand in the 1880s. Now, we use drill rigs to auger into the Earth more than 300 feet before hitting water. Hydrologists tell us the aquifer has 35 to 40 years of life left, though some contend we could be out of water in less than 20 years. The conservation of this lifeblood for all areas of our economy is the other critical component to a productive future. In the past century, though, we have used water like it came from a bottomless pit. Today, we know the bottom is uncomfortably close, that our extravagances must change. Agribusiness is the region’s primary water consumer. About 95 percent of the water used goes to crops, cows and other ag-related industry. Farmers, ranchers and dairy operators, therefore, must join city and county officials in a collective leadership role to extend the life of our current supply, which in turn can do the same for the Ute Pipeline supply and others beyond. Low Energy Precision Application irrigation systems are expensive, but more progress can be made to place water on crops with little waste. Some crops can be produced without a lot of water, especially grain sorghum and wheat. They don’t fetch great prices at market and can require a lot of land for profit. But land we have; water we don’t. So farmers should look at ways to switch from water-hog crops, with corn the most obvious of culprits, to lesser offenders that also offer a sound financial footing. And recycling water is no longer just a good idea or science fiction. It is feasible and essential. Agriculture is easy for some people to blame for depleting the water supply. We cannot forget agriculture is a critical fuel for our local economy. Without feedlots and dairies and crops, few of us will need much water because our population will waste away. Government water restrictions — limited days and times, metering all wells and homes connected to water systems — is the least desirable option for saving water. Such limits are likely if New Mexico’s drought cycle continues much longer. Before that happens, each of us should impose our own limits — and not just on the farm. City residents can use dishwashers one time less per week; cut down garden and lawn watering time or frequency; employ drought-tolerant xeriscaping; recycle bath water on plants and such; or wash cars and trucks less. It’s too late to count on the Ogallala Aquifer for the rest of this century. We have to build a pipeline, and the sooner the better. This also will allow time for the Ogallala to replenish itself over the next 100 years and extend its life. But each person and business, if they haven't already, has to become a better steward of water. The future of our children and our grandchildren and their grandchildren depends on us.
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