Santolina - Wayne's World

Bernalillo County Commissioner Wayne Johnson writes of his support for Santolina Master Plan in the Albuquerque Journal  dismissing opposition, throwing around rotten red herrings and concluding:

Passion and an intense desire to stop new development in Bernalillo County simply aren’t enough for the commission to deny a property owner his or her property rights. 

Aside from hyperbole, this indicates he misses the public benefit part of planning. Changing or denying Santolina wouldn't constitute infringement on property rights. But approving a plan without apparent public benefit and protections has big consequences for County residents. It also makes the Commissioners look like tools.

Continue reading "Santolina - Wayne's World" »

Carrying Water for Santolina

There is a strong disconnection between the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority and the County Commission's decision regarding the proposed  "Santolina" development and it will prove costly in the future.  

The county planning commission has recommended approval with little or no information about the consequences of that decision on water supply. As surprising as that seems, it is also not at all unlikely the Commission will approve Santolina without that data. Because they can. No state or county law says anyone must prove water availability until subdivision - until the land is further chopped-up for resale.  But it'll be too late to say no then.

This is by design and it is contrary to what proponents for Santolina have argued. They stated in testimony before the legislature that water and land use decisions are connected now and everything is working well.  For them, maybe. The argument is that having some of  the same members on both bodies some of the time magically coordinates decisions. No examples were presented, as I'm certain none exist.

Because, as I've stated before, the statutorily defined responsibilities of the boards are completely separate. The utility, the city, and the county  have no coordinating, or even overlapping, planning functions. And planning isn't even required of those entities. To say that planning happens and that it is coordinated is a jaw-dropping gross misstatement.*

The water utility will make a technical decision of how to serve whatever development gets approved by the County. The consequences will rest on all of us. Sort of like:

Give us the water. Sorry about your farms. Maybe you should have thought of that before you said we could have 34,000 houses out here.


* Or a lying liar's lie.

Alonzo's Water


First National Bank
Alonzo's Bank (Photographium.com)

In his memoirs, William Keleher* describes walking home from school one day in 1894 and seeing attorney Alonzo B. McMillen, "a slim six footer," physically attacked on an Albuquerque street corner by the District Attorney. The quarrel had begun in the courtroom.

To say that McMillen, eventual owner of the majority of the Alameda Land Grant, was "prominent" in the Albuquerque community is an understatement.  He was president of First National Bank, head of the chamber of commerce and head the of the New Mexico Bar Association.  He also owned, along with Frank Hubbell, controlling interest in Albuquerque's Water Supply Company.

 "The men who managed the Water Company business apparently had no concern with establishing and maintaining good relations with the consumers, seemingly going out of their way to antagonize citizens."

Later in the book Keleher describes the city's acquisition of the water company through an involved bond purchase. The total cost was $400,000.

"Subsequently, he (McMillen) specialized in perfecting the rights of owners of Spanish and Mexican land grants."

*Memoirs: 1892-1969 A New Mexico Item. 1969

Spoiling Junior

At the Audubon Water, Birds and Conservation Summit on June 15th, participants heard about the Western Rivers Action Network and their efforts to address river health. Insightful presentations by panelists got people thinking. There will be a similar workshop in Las Cruces on June 29th.

It sure got me thinking. Junior water users - primarily municipalities and industries - are not supposed to have priority over senior water users - mostly tribes and farmers.  But no one wants to tell a city 'no.'  State water administrators bend over backwards to avoid it and appear to have assigned them a nearly unquestioned primacy over others. The agencies, engineers, hydrologists, lawyers, lobbyists and consultants who represent the 'juniors' are in the pilot's seat of the ship and no court adjudication is on the horizon.

Take Rio Rancho and Intel for example. They don't have all the water rights for the water they're using, but no one is telling them no, or slow. Take the oil and gas industry that consumes and permanently pollutes an un-tracked amount of fresh groundwater. No one is telling them no, or slow, or to collect data (or even follow the law.)  Just the farmers. They are hearing 'no' quite a bit these days.

Water data also seems framed to benefit junior users. The huge place in pie charts for agriculture often counts  flows in the river and riverside drains, ditches and acequias of the inner valley that support flora, wildlife habitat and, significantly, aquifer recharge from those waterways and farms. All that water is "agriculture." Naturally, the eye is drawn to that magnificently fat pie slice when the need to conserve comes up.


Data presenters also frequently make a distinction between "Economic Development" and "Agriculture." Like farmers are doing it for fun.  Industry and the land speculation arts real estate are considered real economic development that must have adequate water supplies.  To some, farming is a quaint relic of the 19th century. Like sunbonnets.

Where does birdwatching and New Mexico's huge outdoor economy fit in?  Well, if it can't join the Chamber it isn't economic development.


Boat Ramps and Prairie Chickens

LesserPrairie-Chicken-Vyn_090420_0194The New Mexico legislature's interim Water and Natural Resources Committee met in Santa Fe recently. The key presentations of dire drought news and water administration "hot spots" were by the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission Chair.

State Engineer Scott Verhines presented an interesting list of legislative "You Wants" that presumably sum-up the direction of water policy for the State.  At the top of his list: "You want to aggressively protect our water from other states."

As during the regular session, staff presented a huge pile of sobering information at the meeting that no one had time to digest. Questions were not substantive, no actual work plan was established beyond meeting dates and the Committee Chairman Senator Phil Griego diverted a great deal of the committee's time to listening to lamentations about the Lesser Prairie Chicken and dry boat ramps on Conchas Lake - both of which seemed out of context and far less important than basic water policy. One might almost suspect that committee attention was purposefully diverted to avoid the giant, tough, ugly questions. 

Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino wrote about the meeting and suggested some of those hard questions.

 Is it wise to rely on unproven technology to bail us out? Does desalinization of brackish water from deep aquifers offer anything more than a temporary fix? Can we build a pipeline from the Mississippi Valley to move millions of acre feet uphill—and does that make economic, environmental or social sense? Would systems for water recycling and reuse change the situation enough to justify the capital investments required? Is cloud seeding anything more than a pipe dream?

Great questions. But don't expect to hear anything about them at the next interim Water and Natural Resources Committee meeting.



Lessons from the 2013 #nmleg

Roundhouse buffaloThe capitol building itself is a wondrous place. This year again I found myself walking round and round looking for a committee room that had disappeared. A friend remarked it would be a bad place for a bad acid trip. Look! That buffalo is coming out of the wall!

The final days of the session were a little stale and sad - like the last weekend of the State Fair when all the grass is brown and the animals are gone. The bills are like those 4-H livestock projects. A whole lot of work. Few trophies. They die.

Sitting in committee hearing rooms turned up interesting details and occasional spontaneous outbursts of sincere emotion. No less interesting were instances of calculated misdirection or omissions in testimony -  and the potent questions left hanging

How much gas or oil do we get for all that fresh groundwater?

And shouldn't water be worth more than oil? 

The major things:

1. New Mexico consistently overvalues engineers, businessmen and big construction projects and undervalues artists, teachers and intangible natural assets. It's all about the money. No less at the legislature. Probably more so. Treatment of water in a drought is one example. Water rights market wheeling and dealing is very hot right now. Many predict those who can not pay for water lawyers and hydro-geologists will be left high and dry. Small farmers. Small fish. Meanwhile big water pipeline projects with fat construction contracts will be justified with magical incantations.* Gila River? Go Fish.
2. The negative impacts of the oil and gas industry are denied, ignored and suppressed. To use water as an example again, the industry uses veritable buttloads of water and pollutes it as fast as they can frack. But the state doesn't track this water use at all. Nor do they know what's in it before it's disposed. Any bill considered 'unfavorable' to the industry is met with exhortations to stop 'antagonizing' oil and gas. This from legislators who proudly hail intimate ties to the business.

The sign by the door of the Senate press room calls it the 'Print Media Gallery' which could imply exclusion of a blogger or social mediaist. But like a lot of other things in the Roundhouse the sign does not reflect reality or truth. Or it would read, 'Senate Staff Lunch Gallery.'

*Jobs, jobs, jobs- the magic words for any proposal that might otherwise lack merit.

Fine Fine New Mexico - HB286

The Texas Legislature is considering raising their penalties for oil and gas violations from $10,000 per day to $200,000. New Mexico's HB286 would raise the daily maximum penalty from $1000 to $10,000. I dislike Texas comparisons as much as the next New Mexican, but come on. That makes a fine of $1000 per day for violators that pollute land and water a new new low.

HB286 is scheduled to be heard by the House Judiciary Committee this morning.

Can’t Buy It Back - Water Update

I still don’t get how you can buy your way out of drought. Seems like that’s what a couple of bills are about. SB440 is for $120 million for the lower Rio Grande and SB462 would give the Carlsbad Irrigation District $2.5 million . But let's face it. No amount of money for water rights is going to make it rain. Unhappily for all of us, whether we’re in denial or not, climate change means we should set policy for big water use reductions and super-efficiencies.

It might help if we didn't pollute so much of it.

Continue reading "Can’t Buy It Back - Water Update" »

Water Right - Land Grant Parallel

Water rights remind me of land grants in that similar frantic profiteering kind of way. The legal maneuvering and gamesmanship over land in 19th century New Mexico is legendary. Multiple deals over many years gradually and nearly invisibly severed the resource from communities in the interest of privatization, subdivision and sale.  

Though historic community ditches and acequias are exempt from such administration, the result of other water transfer profiteering and speculation in the end could be the same as the land grant outcome - incremental distancing and eventual alientation of existing and future communities from what it takes to survive. Land. Water.

Roundhouse of Cards

Damn it. I just love pecans.

Surface water users and the river itself, are the first to get screwed in a drought. Shortfalls are already hitting farmers and the river ecosystem on the lower Rio Grande. They’ve been making up the difference with three solid years of heavy groundwater pumping to keep the pecan trees alive. The pumping is further reducing flows required downstream. That’s very serious and has everyone in a Texas-sized tizzy.

Reducing city use isn’t on the table. It isn’t even in the kitchen. None of the legislative proposals to meet drought challenges specifically include reducing municipal or industrial demand. On the contrary, those are viewed almost unquestioningly as economic engines of the state. The State Engineer is empowered to speed such water transfers.

There is a fundamental bias against desert agriculture, even agriculture in the river valley where it has existed for thousands of years. The ‘antiquated agriculture” construct is at the heart of water right transfers. The belief says we don’t need local food and it isn’t economic to grow it. This view nests nicely with memes like how new construction equals economic development and people are more important than a tiny fish.   

Suggestions to “live within our means” and become more accountable for water use and misuse are met with a metaphoric snort of derision, like a Memorial maybe. Meanwhile elaborate pipeline schemes gain momentum.

Attempting to move more water when there is less water to move, seems foolhardy. As do some of our assumptions about what constitutes a healthy economy. Have the building industry and water marketeers dominated the water transfer conversation to the detriment of agricultural interests and native river ecosystems?

You might well think that. I couldn't possibly comment.