Water Crisis: Challenges Ahead in New Mexico

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While much of America’s southwest and inter-mountain west has been battling blazing forest fires, Magdalena, New Mexico faces a less spectacular but equally fearsome crisis: a municipal water system no longer capable of delivering potable water to the village’s 938 people. Since early June, Magdalena residents have been living on rationed bottled water and waiting on a daily parade of trucks to roll down the highway and deliver potable water thousands of gallons at time. The trucks deliver enough water to conservatively recharge the most basic daily needs of the village, but not enough to allow swamp coolers to run or baths to be drawn. A combination of systemic mismanagement, historic drought, and infrastructure disrepair led to the collapse of Magdalena’s municipal well.

According to reports by the Las Cruces Sun-News, the area’s water table has dropped 20 feet since January, falling below the well’s minimum intake level. Now, on the worst of days, residents must boil what little water they can get from their taps and use publicly installed porta-potties in lieu their own home’s restrooms. The state has approved an emergency permit to drill a second, deeper municipal well, but in the meantime residents and local business rely on water delivered from other central New Mexico cities—many of which face their own long term water crisis.

Magdalena is not an isolated story. After three years of extreme drought and the state’s driest decade in sixty years, water shortages are becoming a harsh reality for many communities across New Mexico. As recently as June 29th, the Ruidoso Free Press announced that the small mountain village of Cloudcroft “will start receiving trucked in water shipments…due to faltering well and spring water production.” Las Vegas, a city of almost 15,000 in state’s northeast region, has been dealing with the threat of shortage for over two years. In response, the local government passed a Drought Contingency and Emergency Action Plan. The short governing document sets milestones for measuring escalating stages of drought and assigns mandatory consumption and conservation actions to each stage.

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Local government action plans, with their policies grounded in the sobering consequences of water shortage, are a pragmatic and necessary interim step, but taken together they will not solve statewide inadequacies in water management and adaptation exposed by newspaper headlines and predicted trends in climate change.

State level officials have begun positioning themselves ahead of the looming water crisis. U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), in partnership with New Mexico State University, published Hard Choices: Adapting Policy and Management to Water Scarcity in 2012. The report details a number of cross-disciplinary policy prescriptions, including reforms to a century’s old water rights system, advanced investment in research and monitoring technologies, brackish water desalination, increased infrastructure maintenance funding, conservation standards, and changes to agriculture and large-scale irrigation. Interestingly, despite irrigated agriculture accounting for the lion’s share of statewide water withdrawals (roughly 77%), the report spends far less than 77% of its word count addressing the agriculture industry.

Unfortunately, Magdalena faces a different kind of crisis than the one debated by legislators, scientists, and academics. Their water shortage is visceral and immediate, an emergency management crisis demanding instantaneous sacrifice, not incremental planning and long-term adaptation. When the sun dries out the sky and rain is more memory than forecast, they no longer have the luxury to debate the nebulous topics of water rights and statewide policy.  Indeed, they are busy enough just trying to survive, which they do for now by waiting, by cutting back and conserving wherever possible, and by watching the highway for water trucks.

As for the rest of us, we survive by assuming Magdalena’s crisis will never be our own. And that might prove a costly assumption to make. The more we can shift the burden of the looming water crisis from short-term emergency management to long-term planning, the better off our cities and towns will be.

Adapting to a drier, hotter southwest necessitates making tough, future-oriented decisions in an era of uncertainty and change. For Magdalena, a deeper well expedited through the state engineer’s office may solve water shortage a month from now, but it won’t make it rain. What happens five or ten years down the road? What happens when water scarcity begins to impact not just the dusty rural towns of New Mexico but also the sprawling suburbs of its growing metro areas?  When the prioritized expenditure of state emergency funding and limited water reserves demands a cost/benefit analysis, how will the rural compete with the urban?

If you are a state legislator representing Magdalena, Cloudcroft, or Las Vegas, these may be the kind of questions that someday keep you up at night. However, if you are a resident of these communities, they’re the kind of questions that already do.

Lucas Lindsey is Co-Editor of This Big City on Tumblr and is based in Tallahassee, USA. He is an urbanist, futurist, and blogger.

Images via Flavio Ensiki

  • W. Norman

    Interesting article — but could you not find a photo of southern New Mexico to lead off your article instead of one from Arizona? Unless I am much mistaken (not the first time!) isn’t that’s a saguaro cactus in the right background of the pic? They only grow in a narrow geographical area in AZ!

    • http://www.thisbigcity.net/ Joe Peach

      Wow, that is some cactus knowledge! You may well be right – apologies if that is the case. This Big City is published from London and we use the Creative Commons search tool for our photos sourcing. That means we rely on the information people place on their photos to dictate their use. This time we may have got it wrong!

    • Lucas Lindsey

      You are not mistaken… that is definitely a saguaro! I’m spending my summer in Phoenix and I see them all over the place. Thanks for providing us with that correction.

  • http://twitter.com/SustainLandDev SLDI

    My condolences to Magdalena and other drought-stricken areas, Perhaps it’s time to adapt by moving to a more sustainable area….

    A Budding Model of a Truly Sustainable Community
    By Sustainable Land Development Initiative | January 13th, 2012
    http://www.triplepundit.com/2013/01/budding-model-sustainable-community/

    • Lucas Lindsey

      You bring a tough but prescient issue: there must a point at which relocation is the necessary adaptation for some communities. Do you foresee a future with domestic climate refugees looking to relocate?

  • Magdalena

    This is about mismanagement, not about drought!

    • Lucas Lindsey

      Mismanagement of all sorts and at all levels of leadership definitely tops the list, and that’s why I lead with mismanagement when I listed some of the contributing factors. The intense drought seemed to exacerbate underlying issues and expose flaws in management and planning. Many, many words could be written on this subject, but hopefully the article captures some of your sentiment.

  • newmexican

    I see this over and over again where people blame the management of difficult situations. Just like the hurricane evacuations that are hard to call days in advance when they may not even strike. You can’t spend money or take action every time there is some sort of risk possible. And some might blame global climate change too (which it may be) but these sort of droughts do occur every 50 years or so. Worse droughts have occurred in the past and they will in the future. I do hope these people got some good rain last week though.