Los Alamos does need to conserve water

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By The Staff

I disagree with the notion that we can pour as much water on our lawns as we want while exhorting the rest of the state to solve “their” water problem. That has been the gist of numerous suggestions in recent months that we need not conserve water in Los Alamos.

We live in a dry region. The water supply and usage patterns in Los Alamos may be different than in much of the state, but that gives us neither moral nor political license to waste such a precious resource.

Statewide, residential water use in New Mexico represents about 9 percent of total use. 5 percent goes to industry, 76 percent goes to agriculture, and roughly 10 percent is lost to evaporation from rivers and reservoirs.

Political and economic pressure from the growing urban populations will undoubtedly bring fundamental change, diverting more water to domestic use at the cost of the traditional agrarian culture that has defined northern New Mexico for centuries.

This will be a long, slow, and painful change.

The water situation in Los Alamos is much different. At present, we are “living within our means” waterwise. All our supply is groundwater pumped from the aquifer via deep wells.

Annual use has varied between about 80 percent and 95 percent of our currently-utilized water rights. Of that, roughly a quarter goes to LANL, although it is entitled to more.

Nearly half is used for domestic and commercial purposes. About a third is used for outdoor watering. Exact numbers vary from year to year, depending on snow and rain.

We are not immediately desperate as are many of our neighbors. But several factors could change our seemingly comfortable situation both on the demand and supply side of the equation.

Los Alamos may grow. Land most obviously limits our population today, but water and transportation capacity also limit our options.

Hydrological evidence points toward declining water levels in the aquifer. Although this evidence is not conclusive, it suggests that water quality, and ultimately usable quantity, will decline over time.

Contamination of the aquifer remains a concern. DOE is committed to cleaning up any contamination in supply wells, but how solid those commitments will be years from now is anyone’s guess.

Our existing groundwater rights are relatively junior. They are subordinate to more senior water claims if our neighbors get in dire straights. Any adjudication would be agonizingly complex and protracted. Its outcome would hinge on both legal and political footings.

Our political stance in this arena, as in general, would be stronger if Los Alamos is seen doing its part to conserve this most precious resource.

Our only real option to increase or diversify our water supply is to utilize our recently-acquired rights to San Juan-Chama surface water.

This water would need to be pumped up from the Rio Grande, an undertaking that will take considerable time and money. It will be a major topic soon.

Any surface water used from the Los Alamos Canyon Reservoir when it is restored (still on track for 2008) would count against our groundwater rights. This would not be an added supply.

Los Alamos County adopted a comprehensive “Long-Range Water Supply Plan” in 2006. (It is commonly called the “40-year water plan.”) The plan includes much of what is known about our water use and supply, physical and legal threats to our supply, and options for the future.

The long-range water plan was well summarized in a Monitor guest column on Aug. 15, 2007, by Barbara Calef and Kelly Gallagher of the League of Women Voters. The full report is accessible from the Utilities page of the County website, www.losalamosnm.us.

In this dry region, conservation is a moral, political, and practical imperative. State law and policy are rightly structured to effectively compel conservation efforts on the part of water users. The long-range water plan recognizes this. It outlines the many measures we already have in place, in the works, or might consider.

Conservation efforts by LANL have reduced its use. Domestic and commercial use can be reduced, but probably by only a small amount. The obvious place to most easily conserve is in outdoor watering.

Done intelligently, conservation need not turn Los Alamos brown. It is amazing how much vegetation can be kept healthy with modest amounts of water if plants, irrigation systems, and watering schedules are selected and maintained with care.

Our neighboring communities and the next generations of Los Alamos residents will thank us.