03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Trying to Save Water When the Law Says Waste It

TESUQUE, NM--Reading the frightening tales contained in Steven Solomon's new book "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization" here in the high mountain desert of New Mexico is like reading about the dangers of nuclear power in the shadow of the cooling towers at Three Mile Island. You wonder if anyone is paying attention?

The contrary human, social, and legal behaviors when it comes to water, which Solomon describes in his book, are in abundant evidence here. I'm the president of a mutual domestic water association. It's like a municipal water system but on a tiny scale. We have seven wells, two water tanks, five or so miles of underground pipes and it's our job to supply water to about sixty-five houses.

As the kind of fellow who came of age around the time of Earth Day I worry constantly about how much we waste. Living here in a region whose annual rainfall is what New York City gets in a couple of months, water--or the lack of it--is an inescapable worry. Privately, we do our best to keep our consumption down. The amount my wife and I use is well below the national average of 4,800 to 6,000 gallons for a similar sized household. Our main bathroom features a waterless urinal and we treat our wastewater and reuse watering the trees around our house. So as individuals, we do what we can. But that's not the problem.

Rather it is in my capacity as one of many officials in the massive state's water system that I confront rules that encourages the use of water rather than its conservation. At fault are the out-of-date water laws that govern us and no one dares change them out of fear. Water rights are the most precious thing on can hold in the Southwest. People used to kill each other over them in the old days. Today they use lawyers.

Our mutual domestic system has the legally enshrined right to draw 29.5 acre-feet per year. (The fact that we measure water in acre feet already tells you a lot about the arcane nature of water politics out here.) At this rate we permit each house to use up to 163,000 gallons a year, more than twice what the average two-person household use.

After reading Solomon's book one would immediately conclude that such excessive use makes our little water system a prime example of what is leading to the pending water crisis. So one might suggest, as some of use the new members of our water board did, that we encourage residents to conserve and use less water. Although veteran members received the idea politely, the reception to it was as if we had suggested there was merit in altering the Second Amendment during a meeting of a local chapter of the National Rifle Association.

Before you conclude my fellow members are irrational, read on. Like any elected board, our water board has a fiduciary duty to protect the rights--especially the property rights--of our constituents. Our most important asset is our water right--you remember those 29.4 acre-feet. If we don't have policies that ensure we draw almost every last drop of those gallons of water each year, the state can decide we don't need the water. This is what is called the "use it or lose it" policy enshrined in laws passed back when New Mexico was just becoming a state.

Folks who work in government agencies are well familiar with this idea. If you save money and don't use all the money your legislature gives you one year, you can bet you will be rewarded with a smaller budget the next year.

So our board is bound by its primary legal responsibility to its members to remain wedded to a policy that is, for lack of a better description, sending precious water down the dry arroyos of the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.