Protecting rivers is vital to our economy and way of life
We have an opportunity to restore the health of the Colorado River and its tributaries, including the San Juan River in New Mexico.
Western rivers are hurting. The Colorado River, for example, has dropped 35 percent of stored water in the past dozen years while demand far exceeds supply. That’s bad news for the 36 million Americans who rely on the Colorado River.
This is cause for alarm right here in our state because the San Juan River is a significant tributary of the Colorado River. New Mexico depends on the San Juan and Colorado Rivers for our economic and environmental health.
Growing up in a small farming community, I know firsthand how important water is to farmers. Without healthy rivers and watersheds, acequias – New Mexico’s centuries-old network of irrigation ditches that supply water to farms – would dry up and crops and farm animals would not survive.
But that’s only the most obvious impact. Retail sales related to rivers in the West, including the Colorado River, are equivalent to 55 percent of revenue from New Mexico’s annual agricultural production. Recreational activities associated with local rivers support more than 17,000 jobs in our state. Recreation on rivers generates over $190 million in federal, state and local tax revenue.
Demand is not the only drain on western rivers. We have seen an increase in larger wildfires over the past decade. In recent weeks, firefighters battled wildfire on nearly 265,000 acres in New Mexico. Ash and debris from these fires pollute our watersheds. Recently, USDA Undersecretary Harris Sherman said the threat of wildfire creates the need for government agencies to take proactive measures to protect vital resources, including watersheds that provide water for drinking, farming and recreation.
Fortunately, we have an opportunity to restore the health of the Colorado River and its tributaries, including the San Juan River in New Mexico. The U.S. Department of the Interior has partnered with the seven Colorado River Basin states to conduct a study to come up with solutions to the problems that threaten the river. I have worked with my colleagues in Congress to encourage the Department of the Interior to implement policies that will create more jobs, are affordable and sensible, and protect our way of life and our water.
We must work together to sustain our drinking water and the viability of agriculture while keeping enough water in the river to protect and promote jobs in the recreation industry. If we were to lose the revenue generated by people using the Colorado River and its tributaries for recreation, it is estimated that New Mexico’s unemployment rates would increase by more than 2 percent. We cannot afford to let that happen.
Conservation and preservation polices also have to be practical. There is no money, political will or time for grandiose plans that promise to run up costs with little hope of increasing water stores. It is time to focus on commonsense solutions that can be implemented in the near future and can keep water cheap.
It is also important to safeguard our way of life. Fishing, boating, hiking and other recreational opportunities keep people coming to New Mexico. But those experiences also define our lives as New Mexicans. About 36 percent of adults in this state enjoy recreational activities along the Colorado River and its tributaries: the San Juan, Gila, Animas, and San Francisco rivers. Policies to save our rivers, especially the Colorado, have to preserve our quality of life as well.
We can’t afford to wait to address this important issue. The best way to bring supply and demand back into balance is by developing solutions that respect the needs of all of us who depend upon the flow of western rivers. We can do that by employing the principles of efficiency and flexibility and by taking commonsense steps to maximize both the flow of the Colorado River and the quality of life for New Mexicans and all who cherish it.
Luján, a Democrat, represents New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House.
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