Regional water governance: Rio Rancho, Albuquerque and the question of scale

Let’s talk about “polycentric governance” and the problem of regional water institutions, shall we? Because here in New Mexico, we seem to have this a bit messed up, and my book research is leading me into some compare-and-contrast exercises that might be useful in thinking our dilemma through in more detail.

"Nobel Prize 2009-Press Conference KVA-30" by © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Nobel Prize 2009-Press Conference KVA-30” by © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Dennis Domrzalski, writing in ABQ Free Press in December (pdf of the issue here), highlighted a great case study of the problem. Albuquerque, Domrzalski pointed out, has been enormously successful in reducing its use of groundwater, spending vast sums on a new system to use imported Colorado River Basin water instead. The aquifer beneath the city is rebounding as a result:

But now, water authority officials say that $450 million San Juan-Chama investment by Bernalillo County and Albuquerque residents – as well as their conservation efforts – are being negated by groundwater pumping by the ever-growing city of Rio Rancho.

“Polycentric governance” is the social science jargon for one type of solution to what I’ve been shorthanding as the “no-one’s-in-chargeness” problem facing a lot of water management.

The classic formulation of the problem is Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons“, where a hypothetical Albuquerque gets all thrifty and preserves the resource only to have avaricious Rio Rancho suck all the savings away. One answer (it works in Hardin’s grazing pasture example, harder to operationalize in the Rio Rancho-Albuquerque case) is to privatize the resource and let the owner sell. The other approach is to have a centralized government authority ride herd over the resource. In the Rio Rancho-Albuquerque case, that might be a New Mexico Office of State Engineer administering water rights. (Insert joke about sale of large bridge here, or see Rio Rancho flack Peter Wells’ “Hey, we’re just following the rules” explanation in Domrzalski’s story for a sense of how well that’s working out.)

The late Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues, beginning in the 1960s, suggested a third path, which has come to be called “polycentricity”: “a social system of many decision centers having limited and autonomous prerogatives and operating under an overarching set of rules” (quote from Aligica and Tarko). The question here is the institutional framework from which those rules emerge, and through which they are enforced.

Ostrom first fleshed these ideas out in her 1965 doctoral thesis on the formation of what is today the West Basin Municipal Water District on the coastal plain west of Los Angeles. Individual cities were pumping the hell out of the aquifer in a race to the bottom, salt water intrusion was increasingly becoming a problem as you got close to the coast, and they had to figure out how to create some sort of a collective solution. The individual city water management units stayed the way they were, but they created an umbrella organization to coordinate pumping and water importation on a regional basis. (The West Basin story is getting a whole chapter in my book. It’s a great early example of overcoming the no-one’s-in-chargeness problem.)

In the West, there are other examples.

  • In metro Las Vegas, a bunch of competing water agencies banded together in 1991 to form the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which acts as a go-between with the federal government for water from Lake Mead and also provides a framework for collective action on water problems, even as the individual member agencies still maintain their autonomy.
  • The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California acts as a big super-agency floating above individual agencies that retail water.
  • Arizona formed the Central Arizona Water Conservation District in the early 1970s to act as a go-between with the feds for Central Arizona Project Colorado River water. (One member of my brain trust questioned whether it’s reasonable to call CAWCD “regional governance.” I reserve the right to revise and extend here. 🙂

Here in the Middle Rio Grande Valley of central New Mexico, we got nuthin’. There are three large water agencies – Rio Rancho, Albuquerque and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (which serves ag water). We’ve got a bunch more small agencies. We’ve got individual pumpers (including the university, where my office sits). The actions of each can impact the others, but there’s no institutional framework in place for collective self-government at the points where those actions interact via the system’s real world hydrology. One might argue that the New Mexico Office of State Engineer should provide that framework by regulating water pumping rights, but the aquifer numbers speak louder than words here.

We need some polycentric governance.


  1. “Here in the Middle Rio Grande Valley of central New Mexico, we got nuthin’. There are three large water agencies – Rio Rancho, Albuquerque and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (which serves ag water). ”

    What about the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Authority? and maybe MRCOG could provide the framework, instead of the State Engineer.

    At Sen. Jerry Ortiz Y Pino’s Legislative forum last Sunday I heard an interesting proposal. Now the ABCWUA board consists of rotating appointees: 3 City Councilors, a few County Commissioners, and a Mayoral appointee. The coverage is spotty and they don’t necessarily know anything about water. Instead, divide it into districts (corresponding to the 5 County Commission districts), and elect them. Then the whole county would be covered, with less turnover. I don’t know what you do about the problem that the ones with the most motivation and money to run are tools of the developers.

  2. Michelle – When I said “Albuquerque,” I was using sloppy shorthand for ABCWUA, sorry.

    I like Sen. Ortiz y Pino’s idea of an elected board. His (your?) critique of the problem of the current board is valid. But it doesn’t solve the geography problem (Rio Rancho wouldn’t be in it), or the need for some way of coordinating with ag water users at MRGCD.

  3. And, of course, there’s the ongoing, everlasting contamination of the aquifer by the Kirtland fuel leak, which has already contaminated the water and very little of which has been cleaned up or vapors pulled from the soil.

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