By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water
The humble canary bird stands tall in the history of coal mine safety. Many are the little yellow birds who gave their lives to detect the dangerous gases deep in mines. The bird's response gave an early warning that left time for informed action before the creep of a deadly gas would cost miners their lives.
Today the status of New Mexico water threatens the silvery minnow in the Rio Grande. The conflict is not, as some think, a simple choice of whether minnows or farmers are owed the catbird seat. Both will surely lose unless the early warning from the silvery fish leads to some useful, timely action.
Nothing is solved if we merely take a vote on who stays this year and who leaves, like a slow-played game of "Survivor." To give up the minnow may buy a little time, but it does not change the creeping water deficit. As the coal mine was not safer without canaries, neither does casting aside minnows secure our water future. The question is sustainability--that strange word heard more and more where people congregate. The minnow sends the warning to all water users.
In the confines of a coal mine, the harsh facts are grasped in a moment: The one indivisible air supply means a shared fate for the canaries and miners of every class. With water supply, on the other hand, it seems we can vote for things to be as we wish ... for a while anyway. So we do. Yet sooner or later, water, like air, comes up against natural laws not fixable by a judge or a vote. Rulings may allot water, but cannot create it. Water has facts beyond our reach.
From time to time we count on thwarting nature. It seems we can: We know how nature keeps things from falling off the Earth into space, yet we see a rocket ship work. Off it goes, out beyond the pull of Earth's gravity. We also know of the vast flow of energy resources and tax dollars behind what we saw.
Maybe great feats can defy the limits of New Mexico's water. And who will donate the big dollars to do so, how soon, for how long? Last month's election promised less, not more, federal funds for public works. To those who will hear, the lowly minnow warns about the declining prospect of water.
The value of the warning depends on how well it is used. One option is to ignore it and wait for a later sign. Other options are to get down to work on the details of broad-based water data, water budgets, water savings, water banks, and water plans. To be sure, some of the work is done, but the minnow tells the grim story: The progress is too little and too slow.
Some say phoo on budgets and savings. Water use is all about ownership, written on a stack of water rights--as good as money in the bank. This view might serve if water looked like a car: See the blue Dodge Ram with its serial number stamped here, and here the bill of sale. Check? ...check.
In contrast, a water right depends on uncertain and changeable factors--challengeable things--like the water totals, how much of it is clean enough to use, how the water flows above ground and below, the clauses in conflicting laws and the verdicts in water suits. Water rights work like money in at least one way: As the bank (the aquifer) comes to have too little good water to meet the outstanding rights, the system breaks down. With or without minnows on the docket, the case of farmer vs. farmer will come to trial in due course.
Close watchers will be the cities that use more water than their rights allow and, of course, the Native Americans. In each trial, who wins the verdict for the water? Whose lawyers and expert witnesses best earn their fees? Who next will land in the catbird seat?
A different landing makes for a different viewpoint. To get more use out of water will seem a smart idea to many more folks then than it does right now. Yet to act soon enough, the plans are well behind time.
The means to get more use from water are built from those sturdy ideas listed above: broad-based water data, water budgets, water savings, water banks, and water plans. These are the methods of informed action that help save the livelihoods of water users of every class, including fish. How many signs will it take to get cracking?
Column of Sunday,
December 8, 2002,
Los Alamos Monitor