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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Project looks at need for water conservation in New Mexico

New Mexico needs to look at water conservation and different water management approaches to meet the increasing needs of the state's growing population, said Stephen Arnold, department head and professor in New Mexico State University's Department of Health Sciences.

ignored water supply issues for too long," Arnold said. "Lawmakers need to be leading the charge to develop a solution to the imposing critical issue of water availability."

Arnold addresses New Mexico's lack of water supply in a paper he co-authored with New Mexico State public health graduate student Yongmei Li.

Li said changing the way water is managed and developing conservation programs are necessary in the arid and semiarid border states. Experts are estimating a population growth of more than 50 percent along the border by 2020, Arnold said.

"At current growth and consumption rates, the water supply for many border communities is expected to be exhausted in 20 to 30 years and New Mexico is no exception," Arnold and Li wrote. "A concrete and sustainable solution is needed to meet water demands in New Mexico."

Li said a move from a supply management focus to a demand management focus is needed. Supply management focuses on dam and reservoir construction and does not deal with pollution or conservation. She said demand management would deal with conservation consciousness, new technologies for water conservation and price structures.

"A new price structure is needed in the Western part of the country especially," Li said. "Water is cheap here."

Arnold said typically the water quality is good, but it is alarming that concerns about the short supply are not being addressed.

"It is important for the people of New Mexico to make a decision," he said. "If we want our cities to continue growing then we're going to have to take water away from agriculture."

Arnold said that the rural agricultural areas of New Mexico are attractive to people, but more people moving in means more water is needed.

Using 79.85 percent of the total water withdrawal in the state, agricultural irrigation is the largest use of water in New Mexico, he said.

Arnold and Li write that inefficiency in both irrigation and municipal systems are leading to water losses. Reducing these water losses will be critical to the growing demands, they said.

New Mexico also faces threats to its water supply from neighboring border states, who are facing similar issues. In May of 2001, the Texas Legislature passed a bill that directed the attorney general to "vigorously represent the State of Texas in all litigation involving water rights disputes with New Mexico." The legislature also appropriated $6.2 million for the attorney general to carry out that directive. Arnold and Li write that "it is easy to conclude that Texas wants more water for thirsty El Paso."

Water is directly connected with public health and is exceptionally important in this arid state, Arnold said. Population growth, urbanization, industrial, agricultural and economic development exert continued demands on the already limited water resource, Arnold and Li wrote.

"A comprehensive measure is needed to settle this problem," they said.

Arnold and Li have submitted their manuscript to the Journal of Environmental Health for publication. It is currently under review.

Li moved to New Mexico from China to participate in the public health master's degree program. Before coming to the United States, she was a teacher at the Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. With a degree in medical English, she has also worked as a translator.

Arnold is an award-winning faculty member at New Mexico State. He came to the university in 1998 to lead the health sciences department.

Julie M. Hughes
May 6, 2002