Elephant Butte Reservoir
Proposal would put NM lakes underground
Whoever said "Elephant Butte is where we spread our water out to dry" was probably joking. In these times of drought, it's not so funny anymore. The loss of four hundred thousand acre-feet to evaporation represents about 70 percent of water use in the entire state. Former New Mexico natural resources trustee Bill Turner sees that as a waste, and he has a plan to do something about it.
As a trustee for a Canadian Company called Lion’s Gate Water, he advocates draining Cochiti, Elephant Butte, and Caballo Lakes and diverting the water into the aquifer. Turner says that Elephant Butte is the result of "turn-of-the-century horse trading and conniving and is bogus as hell." He says that in 1906 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation blew up a smaller privately owned dam that was already in place and won the right to store and convey water in Elephant Butte, then built the dam that exists today in 1916. All this was worked into a system based on twelfth-century Arabic water law that made its way to New Mexico by way of Spain.
Turner says that the complex and quirky history resulted in a system that favors a public monopoly over water at a time when public institutions and infrastructure are failing. Lion's Gate applied in June for the rights to the water that evaporates off the lakes. The Office of the State Engineer rejected the application because all the water rights to the Rio Grande are fully appropriated.
Turner calls this contention a myth. "Upstream users are already done with the water by the time it reaches Elephant Butte, and downstream users can’t use what evaporates. If it were fully appropriated, it would be put to beneficial use as required by law." Lion’s Gate is prepared to spend up to a billion dollars to divert water from Cochiti and pipe it along the western face of the Sandias. Along the way it would be released into natural recharge points at arroyos and faults where it would passively percolate into the Albuquerque aquifer. Turner says that one of the best recharge areas is along Las Huertas Canyon, so Placitas and Bernalillo would also benefit.
Under the plan, the extensive ditch system, which is also a recharge point, would remain full even in the off season. Farmers would have water supplemented by pumping in the dry season, and there would be plenty of water left for the bosque and the silvery minnow. Lion's Gate would sell water to the city at a negotiated rate based on a computer model that determines how much water is salvaged by the system.
State engineer John D'Antonio insists, "We have a system in place that does work. The system of reservoirs and conveyance was developed and built over many years. It is somewhat inefficient, especially now that it is stressed by the additional demand brought on by the drought. Everybody is concerned about the evaporation issue and Turner has some innovative ideas that he should put out to the state for consideration."
D'Antonio does not, however, see Turner's plan as a silver bullet. He explained that costs of such a plan would be enormous and that it is still in the conceptual stage. Analytical studies would have to be completed and impairment issues addressed. The plan does not address issues such as the Rio Grande Compact, which specifically requires Elephant Butte to deliver water downstream. He added that Texas would have no incentive to go along with the plan. Right-of-way issues for pipelines would be very complicated, especially when passing through the reservations. Plus, the plan ignores the financial impact on communities around Truth or Consequences which depend on the recreational opportunities provided by the lake.
D'Antonio insists that there is no unappropriated water. This, he says, is a fact, based on the way the entire system is permitted, and therefore he does not have to accept the application.
Turner says that administrative barriers from the OSE are prompted by political ties to the failing policies of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. "The BOR has built an empire based on over three hundred dams and is the manager of water in the West. It is a self-perpetuating, entrenched bureaucracy. They know that if this application goes through, ‘the horse is out of the barn,’ and it will mean the end of their public monopoly. The private sector can fulfill a need that the government doesn't have the money for." He speaks well of D'Antonio, but said that there are people regulating the system from Santa Fe who "represent the last bastion of Spanish feudalism." Turner expressed confidence that Lion's Gate will win the case in court when it emerges from the web of "conflicted interests" of the OSE system of application and appeals.
Placitas water group solicits proposal from USGS
In a effort to quantify and follow trends in area water supply, the Water Resources Association of Placitas has solicited from the United States Geological Survey a proposal for monitoring water wells in the Placitas area. The proposal specifies biannual monitoring of the water levels of twenty wells recommended by New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources hydrologist Peggy Johnson as representative of underground aquifers in Placitas. The proposal also calls for biannual monitoring of stream flow in Las Huertas Creek and spring flow from three area springs.
The cost of the proposal is about $12,000 per year. The USGS would perform the study and absorb forty percent of the cost. WRAP, a group of volunteers without public or private funding, is lobbying for funding from Sandoval County, and also plans to seek funding from state and federal sources.
Sandoval County commissioner Bill Sapien stated that WRAP representatives had met with him to discuss funding the proposal and that Sandoval County is working with several agencies to try to obtain grant money for water projects such as this. He made it clear that WRAP would not be involved in the actual monitoring.
State representative Ron Godbey said, " I am not familiar with WRAP, but I am generally supportive of projects like this. I helped secure funding for a similar study in the East Mountains. Of course, I'd have to see the proposal first. Water is one of the most important issues we face and we need to make sure that water supplies outlast the mortgage payments."
Peggy Johnson said that she spent a day with the USGS putting this proposal together and she would probably continue to be involved in selecting which wells would be representative of which parts of the aquifer because she is familiar with how the system works. "The stream-flow measurement proposal is very good. Measurement of spring flow is also very important, especially during the drought, but access to the springs is a problem. The village water board has shut off [spring-measuring] locations to outside access."
Johnson said that the USGS already has existing monitoring stations in the region and that data will be fed into a regional data base that is available on-line to the public. "It is up to members of the community to decide what objectives they want to achieve,” she said. “They have to be involved with an organization that represents the community as a whole."
WRAP spokesman Dave Burlingame said, "Our purpose is to continue Peggy Johnson's study of the hydrogeological area around Placitas. We hope to get the county on board to help pay for the monitoring study for four or five years so the original study doesn't become dated and end up on a shelf. The thrust of our efforts is to get all the Placitas home-owner associations and water boards involved and to be a representative group for home owners in the area. We want to be inclusive of the entire community and get as much information as possible."
Burlingame said that he is confident that Placitas water resources are generally good, and that monitoring will protect real-estate values from the negative perceptions created by the media.
For more information about WRAP, call Dave Burlingame at 771-0295.
Colorado’s thirsty suburbs get the state into trouble
Denver’s southern suburbs have a rich, new-car smell. Emboldened by information-technology employers, Douglas County during the nineties was the nation’s fastest-growing county. It also ranked among the nation’s elite in per capita income, education, and other measures of affluence.
In short, this region of sleek and slinky subdivisions looks and feels an awful lot like the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles in the sixties and seventies. In fact, many of its new residents during the nineties came from California.
But for all their luxuriant golf courses that roll up toward the Colorado Rockies, Denver’s southern suburbs in Douglas County and unincorporated Arapahoe County are in a pinch. Their hurried growth is based on an exhaustible water supply. Wells for this oasis civilization are running dry.
Some say this underground body of water, called the Denver Aquifer, will hold out for a thousand years, others say only thirty or forty. What is known is that existing wells produce steadily diminishing volumes of water every year, sometimes only a third as much. Wells must be dug deeper and deeper. Replumbing this subterranean water supply could be enormously expensive.
But in the West, who pays their own way in water? For most of the twentieth century the federal government played the role of an uncommonly generous banker to Westerners in need of water.
The largest project, what the late historian David Lavender called a "massive violation of geography," was the Colorado-Big Thompson diversion. That project, launched during the dusty, hard-bitten 1930s, takes water from the snow-clogged headwaters of the Colorado River through the Continental Divide onto the rich but dry lands of the high plains, creating irrigated farms even to the Colorado-Nebraska border. Now, those farms are being steadily converted into subdivisions around Boulder, Greeley, and other small cities. Colorado Big-Thompson water that once grew grains and vegetables now grows lawns and flushes toilets.
After another drought, in the fifties, a similar project occurred elsewhere in Colorado. Launched by President Kennedy in 1962, the Fryingpan-Arkansas moves water from streams near Aspen to Colorado Springs and Pueblo, on the Denver side of the Rockies. In both cases, water destined to flow west via the Colorado River is now used along the Front Range.
Today, after yet another drought, there’s a cry for more storage. The latest scheme is called Referendum A, which would authorize state-backed bonding of some $2 billion for water projects to be determined by the governor. Not surprisingly, governor. Bill Owens is also the chief lobbyist for Referendum A.
The suburbs Referendum A is designed for have several options, none easy. They can seek to convert water now used for agriculture for their subdivisions. Call this trading beefsteaks for surveying stakes. Altogether, 93 percent of Colorado’s water is devoted to agriculture, and 80 percent of that is used to grow alfalfa, corn, and other crops used to feed livestock. In other words, about two-thirds of Colorado’s water goes to steaks and hamburgers. It would seem that the water could easily be diverted from farms to cities.
But Colorado’s self-image is grounded in pastoral pleasantness. Buying farms for their water is only a step above selling your sister into the sex trade.
A second option for Denver’s southern suburbs is to bore tunnels and lay pipelines for the hundreds of miles necessary to access what little water is not already claimed on the western side of the Continental Divide. This also would prevent water from getting to Las Vegas and California. Like the cry of "The Utes must go" of 125 years ago, the common refrain of any successful politician in Colorado is "No water for California.”
Still, even the bogeyman of California hasn’t united Coloradans. With few exceptions, Colorado’s Western Slope residents see Referendum A as an uncouth guest, the kind who moves in but fails to chip in for groceries. Even most Republicans from these more rural areas have broken ranks to oppose Referendum A.
Support is stronger in eastern Colorado, but the large cities of Denver, Aurora, and Colorado Springs see nothing in this for them. Democrats actively oppose it, and many Republicans have remained quiet. Yet this scheme could get approved. Proponents have a large campaign chest, and not least, they have highly visible enemies to blame for the trouble: drought and California.
But the real enemy remains the build-now, pay-later mentality of these suburbs. Government authorities for two decades routinely approved subdivision after subdivision, predicated only on exhaustible, underground supplies. It would be, they correctly surmised, somebody else’s problem.
Well, they were right. It is now our problem. What’s doubtful is the solution on the Colorado ballot November 4.
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives and writes in the Denver area.