(Written by Jack Milarch – NMHBA EVP/CEO – Originally published in the September 2006 Housing Journal)

The Inevitable Convergence of Water and Growth Issues

I was recently interviewed by a reporter from the Albuquerque Journal who was writing a story highlighting a poll they had commissioned from long-time local pollster Brian Sanderoff. The topics were Water and Growth and, according to the resulting article, they quizzed “New Mexico voters”. The story was published recently and caused me to think about water issues again, relative to our industry.

The article noted eighty five percent of the voters polled statewide said they are “somewhat concerned” or “very concerned” about long-term water supplies. My only surprise was that MORE people weren’t MORE concerned, and then I remembered we have many newcomers who might have arrived since this summer’s monsoon began.

The poll questions were apparently constructed to connect the two subjects of water and growth and resulted in the Journal reporting that “Sixty-three percent said state and local government should limit new residential and commercial development in their communities because of water supplies”.   I told the reporter I wished they had asked their questions differently, and I talked about some of the larger issues related to water that our association leadership has been discussing over the last few years.

So, what are some of the bigger issues that I wished had been presented? I think we need to take a hard look at where ALL our fresh water is “used”. While many people are uncomfortable seeing large tracts of new rooftops, we need to keep things in perspective. Remember, the vast majority of New Mexico’s fresh water is used for agricultural purposes. While we all like our locally grown chile, there is no question that our constitutionally spawned “use it or lose it” rule for ag water encourages some amount of that water to be “used” for little or no current economic value. How much? Nobody knows. But common sense says even a small amount of the vast majority of our usage probably is a whole lot of water. It’s a big picture item that New Mexicans need to address, and I wish the newspaper story would have at least mentioned it.

Let’s talk about issues much closer to our industry. If we end up agreeing that the scarcity of drinking water really demands strong action, then a logical way to handle the problem is at the development stage of new construction.   Our NMHBA leadership has been talking about promoting the use of subdivision-wide water recycling features. In one of our many water discussions a member told me “it’s just stupid that we water our plants with drinking water”, and I had to agree with him. Urban irrigation currently uses lots of drinkable water, and somehow the folly of that needs to figure into our future solutions to New Mexico’s water problem. The thought here is that we should have TWO water pipes running to each house, one for outside uses that flows non-potable water. While this seems a bit radical, a representative of a major Albuquerque developer told me they were planning on having that feature in a huge new development of theirs. A Santa Fe development was just approved by CID’s Mechanical Bureau for a similar water recycling system.   Such progressive thinking and actions are much better approaches to water problems than asking our governments to constrain new development.

Ignoring my bad feelings about the poll questions and the resulting story, however, I have to agree that we can, and probably should, do more in our development and living practices to conserve our drinking water. Nobody can deny that into the foreseeable future our precious drinking water will become increasingly scarce and probably more expensive too.   New Mexico’s rapid growth areas are mostly in high desert terrain, and that fact alone is bound to trigger thoughts by reasonable people that stopping growth is one way to forestall a future problem.

Our Board of Directors recently reviewed our long-standing published position on Water recently and found it to be timely and relevant. A portion of our statement follows below.

NMHBA encourages pursuit of innovative and new solutions to our water challenges and actively promotes construction details which advance the goals of water quality, quantity and conservation of water relative to domestic water uses.

We believe conservation solutions should:

  1. Be easily understood,
  2. Result in every water user bearing a share of the burden, and
  3. Be perceived as fair by all who are impacted.

NMHBA supports solutions that create water-conserving motivations within all impacted water users.

Water policy must not be used as a tool of “no growth” movements. We believe our water challenges can be solved in a manner that allows continued population growth and continued economic prosperity into the foreseeable future.

My observation is that polls often cause community leaders to make short-sighted decisions and mandate overly simplistic actions. Do your part to avoid this. Whenever you hear people talking about water issues, do your best to encourage them to think about long-term solutions that fit within the guidelines of the position statement noted above.