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By The Staff

Impure but prized is the Rio Grande water allotted to cities and counties under the San Juan-Chama (SJC) Diversion pact. Los Alamos County’s share is 1,200 acre feet (390 million gallons), which county government foresees pumping from White Rock Canyon.

Along this stretch of river live carp and catfish, which we are advised to eat either infrequently or never by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). Similar fish advisories pertain up and down the Rio Grande, from tributaries to reservoirs. At issue in these warnings are levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the water and their concentration in fish. Meanwhile, NMED assures us “the PCB levels in Rio Grande water poses no risk to human health through swimming, wading, or drinking,” which is good news for humans planning these very activities for their SJC allotments.

Counties petition for their allotments by submitting a 40-year plan for water use and conservation to the state engineer’s office. In preparation for this 40-year outlook, the county Department of Public Utilities (DPU) wrote in October 2006 the report, “Water and Energy Conservation Plan 2009-2020.” Subsequent water consumption in 2007 and 2008 was ordinary, with 75 percent of our ground-water permit of 5,514 acre feet serving all customers. But water use will soon outstrip the county wells authorized capacity, according to the report, owing to an influx to the county of 7,000 more people, 2,500 high-wage jobs, and 1.2 million square feet of new commercial space. For perspective, one should note that (1) our population has been flat at 18,000 for three decades, (2) a collection of 2,500 high-wage jobs would begin to rival current employment at the laboratory, and (3) 1.2 million square feet of floor space is the equivalent rise on county property of 40 Judicial/Police-Jail complexes.

The report also assumes the laboratory, a major DPU water customer, will use more water. The laboratory, however, plans to reduce industrial water use by 70 percent for savings of 110 million gallons annually, as outlined by Dennis Hjeresen, director of the laboratory’s Office of Risk Reduction, at the Sierra Club’s December 2008 public meeting.

Upcoming changes include the demineralizing of cooling water so that it may be circulated continuously, a move that will save water and produce recirculating water for future projects such as an expansion of high-performance computing. Nevertheless, the county is negotiating with the laboratory over the SJC diversion including who will pay for the pumping station needed to raise 390 million gallons of water a year from the river up 900 feet to the canyon edge.

Considering DPU and Laboratory conservation programs and a more likely stable population, water demand will arguably decrease and not surge as the DPU report predicts. Declining water consumption also matches the trend of the past 20 years. So why does the county seem intent on diverting SJC water? Perhaps the regional aquifer is nearing depletion, but no such case has been made by the DPU. To the contrary, the report expects our full rights to both ground water and SJC water will be needed within eight years to satisfy demand.

The determination to draw SJC water could also stem from a misunderstanding of New Mexico’s so-called “use it or lose it” governance of water rights. The law certainly appears straightforward.

A right not put to “beneficial use” after five consecutive years can be revoked by the State Engineer and returned to the public for another entity to appropriate. Rather than forgo a right to even an overabundant supply in exchange for nothing, most water holders will understandably claim a recognized use. To date, uses recognized by the state engineer include domestic and industrial consumption, recreation, and stock watering, but this is not a comprehensive list. Nor does the state have an official list of uses. Instead, the law gives the state Engineer broad authority in deciding what constitutes beneficial use.

We recently talked with the state engineer’s office and learned that counties may lease – not lose – their water right to state or federal conservation programs with the state engineer’s approval. For example, the county could lease its right on fair terms to the Bureau of Reclamation to help that agency maintain a flowing Rio Grande for endangered-species protection. We hope citizens will stay apprised of the SJC issue before our county, and that the DPU in its 40-year plan will consider the leasing of our SJC allotment to conservation programs to be more economically and environmentally prudent than embarking on a water project of great expense and dubious need.