The “unity of drought” must supersede myths and self interest

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The book Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths About Water in the West (2016) by author and University of New Mexico Professor John Fleck is an excellent read on the subject of water usage and conservation in the American southwest. Even before today’s crises (historic drought conditions and dropping reservoir levels), his book identifies prior water access and resource related-problems, primarily within the Colorado River Basin. The book identifies many myths regarding water access how these were overcome through cooperative efforts. One of the key myths is the following:

“Fear of water shortage is greater than reality, as communities underestimate their ability to cope when supplies run dry. When people have less water, they use less water, often with greater ease than they thought possible.”

Page 119

The trick is not to fall victim to the hyperbole or hysteria most commonly based on myths and to instead work in unison to solve water access/availability problems. The “unity of drought” is an all-encompassing regional-to-national issue that often supersedes local and state-specific interests. History has shown time and again that drought-related problems are more regional in nature and cannot be solved alone. Nor will success be achieved by being selfish, combative, and uncooperative. Just ask the state of Arizona, who has lost out on past water allocations, in part due to being obstinate.

“In the struggle to share the Colorado River, Arizona has always been its own worst enemy…their approach was always pugnacious rather than collaborative.”

Page 65

“Without a change in attitude, Arizona’a belief that ‘water’s for fightin’ over’ could become, rather than a myth, a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Page 86

Meanwhile, Albuquerque and Las Vegas have both successfully shown how to reduce per capita water consumption while continuing to grow and prosper. Phoenix, on the other hand is at substantial risk as there is little incentive to conserve water in the Valley of the Sun.

“In the midst of the drought, Albuquerque cut its per capita water use nearly in half, and the great aquifer beneath the city actually began rising as a result of a shift in supply and reduced demands.”

Page 5

“Big cities, like Albuquerque and Las Vegas, have shown remarkable conservation success, with populations continuing to grow in recent decades, even as water use goes down.”

Page 7

“From 2002 to 2013, the greater Las Vegas metro area grew by more than 34 percent to a population of more than 2 million people. During that same period, its use of Colorado River water — its primary source of supply — dropped by 26 percent.”

Page 34

None of the accolades noted above are supposed to infer that everything is peachy keen, given the record-breaking western drought continues largely unabated. As a result, continuous collaboration and refinement of plans are imperative. Furthermore, those who have long been excluded from the conversation, particularly Native American communities, must be included in any future water access plans and solutions.

Native American communities of the Southwest – Source:

Professor Fleck’s book identifies a number of proven approaches to increase collaboration between all stakeholders, which include the following:

“Define the boundaries of the area where the resource will be managed;

Determine who gets to extract the resource, and when, and how much;

Establish who pays to maintain the health of the resource so that extraction can continue into the future;

Create a process for monitoring the resource and how it is used, enforcing restrictions, and resolving conflicts;

Determine how problems across larger scales — between the resource itself and the larger environment in which it exists — will be resolved;

Create a framework for evolution of rules over time as understanding of the resource and the demands being placed on it change.”

Pages 92-93
  • Maintain an on-going dialogue by the parties/communities affected.

Meanwhile, hysteria, hyperbole, and selfishness will do nothing to help or resolve the current drought situation. They only make finding solutions and making tough decisions more difficult than they need to be.

It’s unfortunate that media coverage tends to focus on problems rather than solutions. The following headline from the July 22, 2022, edition of the Washington Post is a recent example:

“Rio Grande runs dry in Albuquerque for the first time in 40 years” – July 22, 2022

While making for great click-bait, such articles rarely provide answers or hope. Instead, they tend to have the opposite effect by perpetuating myths and/or misinformation. While the headline certainly sounds ominous, one could also make the case that the Rio Grande running dry once in 40 years is proof that strong water conservation efforts over the past four decades have been highly successful in the Albuquerque area, as is demonstrated by the chart below.

Furthermore, water conservation programs in the Albuquerque area include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Credits of up to $2.00/square foot of turf grass lawn when replaced with desert-friendly landscapes towards water utility bills
  • DroughtSmart classes for water utility customers to earn a $20 water bill rebate
  • Water Smart Academy for landscape professionals
  • Doubled fines for wasting water during drought emergencies
  • Water restrictions between 11:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. from April 1-through October 31
  • Water waste violation hotlines to report inappropriate use of water
  • Rebates for the purchases and installation of rain barrels
  • 25 percent “treebate” on the purchase of new desert-tolerant trees
  • 25 percent rebate up to $500 for installation of approved WaterSense smart irrigation controllers
  • Required installation of flow restriction devices after multiple water violations.

As the data above clearly indicates, water conservation efforts should be widely applauded in the Albuquerque area. Applying these successes elsewhere across the Southwest should go a long way towards addressing the ongoing drought and should also help dispel the many myths and misconceptions that can cloud water issues.


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