If you’re going to hold a meeting about an increase in water rates, a place called the Railroad Room might not be the best place. Plus, the room is in the Community Center of the Eldorado Community Improvement Association, another name that makes me nervous. It has a kind of Soviet ring to it.
But I have to say that Dave Chakroff, the water utility manager to whom I’ve complained over the years because he never tells me what in the hell they’re doing in my backyard, and Nelisa Heddin, a water management consultant, did a world-class job of describing the situation with clarity and transparency for the crowd of Eldoradans, explaining the esoterica of water pricing and the dismal state of our local infrastructure and debt.
Rates will go up, but the process has been opened up and will stay open — at least for a while — in a way to make a citizen proud. The cost of water is increasing all over the world. Ours is actually low by comparison with Santa Fe.
Their data and logic were presented in an exemplary and reasonable way. It was the fences around the logic that bothered me. I’ve been working on water governance for a few years now and — if you follow the professional and popular water literature — you’ll see a growth curve in bad news and creative responses. I’ll be the first to admit that struggling to keep up with a lousy infrastructure in a drought with a low budget doesn’t leave much time for reflection. But here are some of the things that were outside the fence, and they apply not just in Eldorado.
u A major reason for declining revenues for the utility is conservation. That’s right, we’re using less water, so there’s less money for the utility, so the rates have to increase. But if we used a lot less water, really leaned into it with education and incentives, doesn’t that mean the utility wouldn’t have to dig new wells or push so much water through aging pipes that they would have less expenses?
u And speaking of draining our aquifers, the source of water for Eldorado, no one mentioned climate change until I said it out loud in discussion. The models say we’re moving toward more spring/summer rain, less snow and higher temperatures that will evaporate and melt what we do get more quickly. The water news tells me that adaptive technologies for aquifer recharge and wastewater recycling are a growth industry, the technology improving by leaps and bounds and now being used in several places.
u Since Eldorado relies on wells that, as I understand it, are drying up, and some are already dry, we fit into another general global trend. It’s identified regularly in the water news as the world realizes that we’re depleting our groundwater faster than it can replenish itself. I don’t know the hydrological data here, not much of it was presented, but drilling more wells, in addition to being expensive, might be a bad habit from the old days in a changing planetary environment that won’t tolerate the habit forever.
The presentation in Eldorado by the utility, consultant and several sophisticated and dedicated community volunteers was a model of an open process driven by a concern to keep the boat afloat, so to speak. I’m not the only one who worries that the planet is changing in fundamental ways, that the old way of doing environmental business is a dead end — the proverbial frog in the pot of heating water. Like Einstein said, you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.
We need to keep the boat afloat, but wouldn’t it be a contribution if Eldorado could be an example of how, over the longer term, we might also change course and destination? That gathering in the Railroad Room represented a group capable of doing just that.
Mike Agar is an anthropologist who works on water governance. More info at www.ethknoworks.com. He only drinks Negra Modelo to conserve water.