In a drought, who runs out of water, and who pays?

When New Mexico was being entertained to newspaper and television coverage last year of water trucks rolling to the handful of communities that, in the midst of drought, had run out, I did a piece in the paper trying to get my arms around the folks he hadn’t run out of water. What were they doing differently?

Consider the little Fambrough Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association, outside Hagerman in southeast New Mexico. In June 2003, the community water system’s managers made a desperate call to the state’s drought hotline. Their pump had gone dry.

A decade later, the system is running at full capacity, with no problems delivering water to its 130 customers. The difference, according to office manager Deborah Huckabee, includes new water rights and two new pumps. “We’re trying to be proactive,” Huckabee said. “We’re trying not to fail.”

Among other things, Fambrough raised rates to pay for all this. As a result, Fambrough was having a hard time getting state funding to help them, because on paper they didn’t need it. I guess given a choice, better to have water and be ineligible for state funding, right? But it raises interesting equity questions.

OtPR, back to help us think through California’s drought (have I mentioned how delighted I am that OtPR is back to help in our time of need?), raises this question as Californians look at the prospect of a dozen communities at risk of running out of water by spring:

Were it mine to do, I’d say that we, the people of the State, will help you once. Before a water truck arrives, you show us your new property tax assessment for water infrastructure that can withstand three dry years. The water trucks will arrive the day after you pass a rate structure that adequately funds your water reliability. We will not take your lack of water more seriously than you do.



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  2. In every state, in wet years and in drought, it is the smallest water systems that tend to have the worst problems, not all of them, but a disproportionate number. Why?

    First, they are small and lack the ability to buy capacity and expertise in bulk. Being small, they also cannot spread costs around very much. Also being small means they are likely to not have a lot of local expertise or as much ability to organize themselves to be effective. And often they are poorer communities, which also often contributes to organizational problems. Finally, because they are often poor, very deteriorated, and expensive to fix, local county governments, often impoverished themselves, have a hard time often coming to their aid.

    To me it is remarkable that many of these small systems work quite well.

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