Op-Ed: We Need Wet Water, Not Paper Water

By Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino

I’ve been a New Mexico state senator for 11 years. When I first ran, it was because as a retired social worker my background in health planning, mental health care and children’s services seemed like a way to make a contribution in shaping state policies in those fields. I quickly realized, however that most of the time I’d be voting on issues far removed from my fields of interest.

Ill prepared to cast informed votes on tax policy, insurance underwriting, gaming compacts and other crucial matters I knew little about, I had to undertake crash courses to fill the gaps in my knowledge. So it was with water policy. 

In time I decided that this vitally important topic couldn’t be one where I relied on others’ opinions. I needed to learn about it first-hand. So I joined the interim committee on Water and Natural Resources five years ago.

Interim committees have no true authority. We meet five times for a day or two during the June to November period when the Legislature isn’t in session. We move the meetings around the state to give people outside Santa Fe a chance to bring issues to our attention or provide testimony on topics that might become bills in future sessions. 

Mostly they are educational opportunities, a way for us to improve our understanding by listening to legal and policy experts who are invited to explain what’s going on.

Because I knew so little about water policy I’ve made it a point to read as many of the reams of reports and white papers that get sent the committee’s way as possible. Gradually I’ve developed a sense of what exactly is the nature of the “water problem” in New Mexico … and of what proposals are on the table to deal with it. 

And I have come to the opinion that we are way off-track. What we are spending millions of State dollars to do regarding water will be of little help in ever solving our core dilemma.

We’re concentrating all our energies (and expenditures) on legal solutions—litigating water rights; negotiating water compacts; tediously hammering out water settlements; buying and selling water access—none of which will produce any more real water. Millions for paper water but pennies for wet water.

The controversy over the proposed Gila River dam captures the issue beautifully. Congress has provided us with access to additional water rights and $130 million to pay for water lines and/or dams to capture theoretical water down near Silver City. 

This has so excited the Martinez Administration that we are now poised to spend upward of a billion dollars of State money to move ahead with this mirage.

Of course the reality is that in only about three of the last 10 years has the wet water, the actual flow down the Gila River, exceeded the base amount, the threshold which would trigger our legal ability to divert from the River. 

In the other seven years, dam or no dam, all our paper rights wouldn’t produce a drop of new water for the project. Further, engineering studies reveal that when we hold that water in a reservoir, we’ll lose 25 percent that we’ve paid for to evaporation and another, possibly greater, percentage to percolation and seepage down into the earth.

Thus the mis-focus of our efforts on paper water, legal solutions and Court cases is apparent. We hammer out settlements (and are prepared to spend hundreds of millions) with tribal entities in Taos and Tesuque, legally exquisite documents of precision and contingency … but the water tables won’t stop dropping precipitously for all that legal beauty.

We use 80 percent of our water for agriculture but our agriculture generates less than 5 percent of our gross economic product (look it up!). Our water woes won’t be resolved in court but out in those thousands of acres of irrigated hayfields that produce feed for cattle and race horses. 

Isn’t it time to question the wisdom of those practices and the many ways in which we subsidize that waste? A different type of agriculture, less water-intensive and involving higher value crops should be our goal, not paper rights to support unsustainable products.


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