Susan Kelly Looks at Growth and Water Supply in New Mexico

Susan KellySusan Kelly, interim director of the Utton Transboundary Resources Center, discussed the projected growth and water supply scenario for New Mexico at the Water Resources Research Institute’s annual meeting in mid-October. The title of her speech was, “The Land and Water Supply Connection: Does Water Limit Growth?” 

Following are some excerpts from her talk:

“Concerns about water for growth will be exacerbated by drought, climate change and diminishing aquifers. It’s hard to deny that we have limits to growth, especially if we take no action to change how we manage water. New Mexico’s water supplies are quite diverse and the water resources available in each water-planning region can’t be easily generalized, but several things are clear: renewable surface water supplies are already allocated to existing uses. These supplies are highly variable from year to year. In many parts of the state, groundwater is being mined, that is, being pumped out at a faster rate than it is recharged. Or the water is being withdrawn from aquifers that are connected to streams that are subject to interstate compact obligations. And right now in an average year, before any new growth, if all water rights are exercised, there is a shortfall in supply. 

“The state’s population is projected to go from 1.8 million today to 3.4 million by 2050. This is only an estimate and the growth projections will change based upon the cycle of economic and demographic changes that we are going through now. And, they may change in the future due to concerns about water supply or due to any number of factors, so there is great uncertainty associated with these projections.

“Every region predicts a gap between future supply and projected demand. Using a low range of population projections, the plans predict somewhere around a 70 percent increase in withdrawals over current water use for “new needs” by mid-century, i.e., those that are associated with growth — commercial, domestic and public water supply.”

Kelly went on to discuss the strategies in play for addressing the demands of growth: “Conservation gets us only so far. To achieve the savings required to meet new growth demands would require the cessation of most of the outdoor irrigation in the urban area.  Water rates need to be increased to incentivize this transition in a manner that doesn’t destroy the value and beauty in the urban areas. Agricultural water transfers — long viewed as the salvation to provide water for growth — are subject to many unknowns, ranging from the availability of water, given drought and climate change, to the legal and physical constraints on the transfer of water.

“Agricultural efficiencies may provide a piece of the supply, but a variety of actions are needed to meet the needs of the future:

• A continuing improved understanding of water supply;
• Statewide building codes that require the best available water conservation fixtures and low water use landscaping;
• Better processes for land use approvals so that there is an assured water supply;
• Smaller lot sizes for new subdivisions;
• Domestic well regulation;
• Consistency between land-use approvals and regional water plans;
• Comprehensive basin-wide research and planning supported by sound science and meaningful public engagement;
• Negotiated settlement of water rights.”

In areas that are not being adjudicated, she believes the state should investigate using an approach such as the Montana reserved water rights settlement commission. A settlement commission could provide a framework for the negotiation of water rights, especially if these negotiations were conducted against a backdrop of comprehensive basin-wide water planning for future needs. 

“Conservation, planning and cooperation versus endless litigation — or put another way, do we want to plan ahead and prevent crises, or do we wait for a crisis when it may be too late for some less draconian measures before we change?” Kelly asked.

The theme of the 54th Annual New Mexico Water Conference, held at Isleta Pueblo, was Water Planning in a time of uncertainty. Retired State Rep. Joe Stell gave the Albert E. Utton memorial lecture.