I have a proposal that could drastically change the way we use Dolores River water that does not involve investing millions of dollars in new water-storage projects or draconian water cut-offs.
Rather, I propose we start seeing water as a gift.
This is not a new concept; the Native Americans based their trade and allocation on a “gift economy” and even the early settlers in this area treated water with care and respect by creating water shares.
What if we treated water like a gift from our mother? You would never mindlessly throw away that ugly sweater she so lovingly knit for you. Instead, we find a way to celebrate these gifts at the annual ugly sweater party.
What’s the difference between a gift and a resource? It has nothing to do with the object itself but how we view the object.
I think we can best demonstrate this with the language we use to describe our actions around resources and gifts. Resources are extracted, exploited, and efficiently allocated to the highest bidder. Gifts are treasured, shared, and celebrated with gratitude.
What would it look like if we shared the gift of water? We have some of the structure in place with the concept of water shares used by Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company in allocating water from the Dolores River. Instead of exploiting every drop of water that we have the right to use, we could consider sharing water with fellow water users.
If we use too much, there won’t be enough to share with others. We could show respect and care for our community by using the “right amount” of water. Conventional wisdom dictates that the right amount of water or efficient resource allocation is found by minimizing costs and maximizing benefits while meeting constraints set by water rights and compacts. Treating water as a gift that is shared throughout the community would empower every individual to make their own decision on water use that shows the greatest respect to this precious gift and the community.
Yes, I know this sounds like we should all hold hands and sing Kumbaya around McPhee Reservoir (even though I bet we make that happen even with our small population linking arms around the record-low lake surface area).
That’s not what I am suggesting here. I am asking each of us to make our decisions about water consumption from a new perspective that is not based solely on our right to use it. We can still honor those rights. But rather than running the irrigation pump with the “use it or lose it” attitude, we need to consider that we are all losing here.
The Dolores River is not “producing” enough water to fill McPhee Reservoir, and even though we all have a right to some of this water, we need to find a way to share this diminished resource in a way that supports our community to grow and thrive. There’s not enough time to reallocate our water rights in the water courts to distribute the resource under prolonged drought conditions, we must change our mindset within the existing water allocation framework.
Here are a few thoughts that might help in sharing the gift of water.
- Wean our fields and gardens from excessive water use.
The Dolores Project that created McPhee Reservoir and extended the irrigation infrastructure throughout Dolores and Montezuma counties was based on a mix of crops, not just alfalfa, as predominates irrigated lands today.
With the hay market going haywire because of uncertain water deliveries, perhaps it is time to return to a more balanced allocation of crops and irrigation water that better matches the original plan for the Dolores Project and our low-water future.
- Plant crops that use less water or return to the bad/good old days of dryland farming and gardening.
Long before the Dolores Project, farmers and ranchers successfully produced hay, meat, and field crops using dryland techniques and drought-tolerant varieties. Granted, their yields were lower, and we are facing more extreme drought conditions than they ever did, but I believe it is better to revisit these techniques than end up with barren fields or worse yet, vast acreages of weeds.
We could start by tapping the knowledge and seed stocks of the old-timers and holdouts who have maintained the dryland culture of growing food without irrigation water and offering incentives to those willing to revive our dryland heritage.
- Xeriscape instead of Zero-scape. Rather than accepting brown lawns dried up by watering restrictions, we could consider investing in other landscaping options that use less water.
Our communities could promote neighborhood beautification projects around low-water installations. By sharing our gifts of green thumbs and gardening tools, we could make it easier for entire neighborhoods to use less water while maintaining a green and colorful landscape.
- Celebrate water conservation and show our gratitude.
We already have the annual Dolores River Festival and Mancos Days. Perhaps instead of racing rubber duckies down the river, we try a race to reduce water use? A rain-dance marathon?
While some of these ideas may seem silly or improbable, I believe it is worthwhile to break out of the box of thinking that existing water rights will determine our water future.
I think treating water as a gift from our mother would go a long way to envisioning and implementing a verdant future for our community while honoring our existing water law and constraints.
Carolyn Dunmire is an award-winning writer who lives in Cahone, Colo.