Volvo Desert

I had a couple of pieces in the newspaper last week about New Mexico’s long term water usage trends. I wrote the stories because the data, a time series I assembled by reviewing state water use reports, surprised me:

Water for household use peaked in 1995 and has been declining ever since, according to state data. Farm irrigation, which makes up the bulk of the state’s water use, has been declining since the 1970s.

The explanation seems to be that we have less water:

“This is about a lack of water resources,” said Sandia National Laboratories water researcher Mike Hightower.

I played a bit with the “peak water” theme, which sounds problematic. A headline writer used the word “grim” to describe the situation, which did not entirely please me, because ultimately, I think this is not necessarily bad news. So I wrote a followup column:

It is easy to single out communities for which declining water supplies are a big problem – farmers this year in the Carlsbad area and the Hatch Valley, for example, or the villages of Vaughn and Magdalena. But perhaps more striking is the grace with which much of New Mexico’s population and economy has made the transition over the past two or more decades to a life with less water.

When one has less water, one uses less water. “We humans are incredibly adaptable,” one water policy wonk wrote me in an exchange following my column.

Two other Albuquerque Journal stories in the past month, one by me and one by my colleague Kiera Hay, tell a similar story, with Albuquerque water use dropping 6 percent this year compared to last and Santa Fe’s dropping five percent.

Early in the research for my book, one of the water community folks helping me asked a pointed question: “Mentioning that you are authoring a book probably rings of ‘Cadillac Desert’. We all have read that. You’re not writing a sequel to that? Are you?” When I started the project, the answer to that question would have been “yes”. As the much-missed OtPR wrote, “It isn’t accurate now (in fact, the book made itself obsolete), but Cadillac Desert fundamentally shaped the lay view of water in CA.” Not just California, but all the West, and it’s where I started. But the more I write about water issues, and the more I work on my book, the more clear it becomes that my friend’s observation about our adaptability is what gets us beyond Marc Reisner’s gloomy implications for our future.

I’ve begun joking that I should call my book “Volvo Desert” instead.



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  2. Lawrie – I’m optimistic because of many examples, including those I cited above, showing people’s willingness and ability to adapt to scarcity when push comes to shove.

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