Class is in session for Water 101 in the latest episode of It’s (Probably) Not Rocket Science. John Fleck, a professor of practice and expert on the governance and management of the Colorado River discusses what is happening with water in the West. Then, Heather Himmelberger from the Southwest Environmental Finance Center explains how water reaches homes, schools and businesses through water utility systems, and the impact of water resiliency.
Anyone staying on top of the news lately, or living in the Western United States, may know why the topic of water is so important. This episode explores the enormous topic that is water, where it comes from, how it arrives to us in our homes, how population booms have impacted our use and finally, where climate change comes into play with all of it.
You’ll hear a lot of talk about groundwater and surface water in this episode, as well as the various means of providing water to the masses, like pumping groundwater, fueling rivers and canals with water from a large source, such as from the Colorado River.
Former director of the UNM Water Resources Program John Fleck has been affiliated with the University’s water research and teaching programs since 2013, and has written about water since the 1980s. His background in science journalism at the Albuquerque Journal ranged from writing on political and policy-relevant science like nuclear weapons, waste policy, climate change, and water. Fleck is an expert on the management and governance of the Colorado River.
Fleck says it is the most important water supply for around 30 to 40 million people in the Western United States and Mexico, and a critical supply for those in Albuquerque, New Mexico, too, outside of the Colorado River Basin.
In the West, there is a deep cultural and economic tie to the river, it being the chief water supply for up to five million acres of irrigated farmland that depend on the agricultural water to grow its food, said Fleck.
“That's important, but its real importance is the cultural value to all these rural communities across the Western United States.”
There are 30 tribal sovereigns -Native American communities - who have deep cultural, spiritual, and religious attachments to the Colorado River, their main water source, which they use for farming and municipal water supplies. The river does a lot of work over many different dimensions, and Fleck said that’s where things get complicated. States and tribal lands are not working well together to share the river.
“Used to be, you live near a river; you take some water out of it. You never took out enough to harm anyone downstream because the rivers were big. When you're trying to do something at the scale of millions of people or millions of acres of irrigated land, suddenly the actions you take harm your neighbors, the folks downstream or are affected by the folks upstream,” Fleck says.
In the 1920s, the seven states that make up the Colorado River Basin (one of which is New Mexico), negotiated a water-sharing agreement called the Colorado River Compact that divided up the river in an unfair and inequitable way; they’d overallocated a lot more water than was available to them by the river.
By the late 20th century, it became clear that we were using more water than the river had to offer. By the 21st century, as climate change was reducing the amount of water further, it was even more clear that the river supplies less than we budgeted for as the amount of allotted community water became even thinner.
Fleck says, “The bottom line is we’re using too much water. Humans have to use less of it, and that’s a challenge.”
Next, a conversation about water systems, how water arrives to our homes and how it's taken away by Heather Himmelberger, a registered professional engineer that has worked with water and wastewater utilities and in the environmental area for over 35 years. Himmelberger’s work with water and wastewater systems covers all 50 states and all 5 U.S. territories. She specializes in asset management, water loss, regulatory compliance, funding, collaborations, and technical managerial, and financial capacity development.
“We have to have water to begin with and in New Mexico, that's particularly challenging. We're in a time of climate change impacts. We're in a drought; it's very hot and dry. Just having water at all is the first step,” Himmelberger explains.
So where is that water going to come from?
As Himmelberger puts it, Primarily, it comes from groundwater. We have to drill a well into the ground and bring the water up. Sometimes it does come from a river. For example, Albuquerque takes some of its water out of the Rio Grande, but primarily groundwater is used most in New Mexico.”
“I always tell people that water is sort of the foundation of your community and if you don't have water, you don't have anything. […] Even though it's like the foundation, we don't always think about putting money into it.” And if water systems are not maintained well, they won’t last long, Himmelberger warns.
“We really, really, really want to make sure we maintain those systems to keep the quality of life up and make sure that customers get good, safe drinking water at their homes,” she adds.
Water resiliency is a pertinent factor of water conservation, especially when it comes to contamination. Already, cities in New Mexico have faced contaminated surface water from ash and dwindling groundwater levels. These problems require innovative, inexpensive solutions that involve everything from consumers, conserving water to systems undergoing massive expansions to reach new water sources.
For a less “watered down” explanation of water maintenance, conservation, and from the political, cultural, and technical angles of water, check out episode two of It’s (Probably) Not Rocket Science! Subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or visit podcast.unm.edu for show notes and resources.