Albuquerque’s lawn problem

Nathalie writes*

Albuquerque, New Mexico, is teetering on the cliff of total water disaster. In August of 2022, one of its main water sources, the Rio Grande river, ran dry in Albuquerque for the first time in forty years, an undeniable sign of chronic overuse. Another major source, the Colorado river is facing a similar fate, and the city’s underground aquifer has struggled for years. And, of the remaining groundwater sources, several have been contaminated by local Air Force bases with PFAS, or toxic ‘forever chemicals’ which are extremely difficult to remove. Drought and scarcity is a critical issue facing the region and is expected to worsen, but you wouldn’t know it from the landscape. Despite being a desert city, Albuquerque boasts an impressive nineteen golf courses, widespread irrigated agriculture, and countless lush, green lawns.

For a city in a temperate climate with plentiful water resources, so much green wouldn’t be issue. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, and by pretending to be such a city Albuquerque has overused its water sources for decades. Its water ‘savings account’ has been depleted, but many local landscapers still act like they’ve got a blank check. And legislators agree: one report found that wealthy landowners were getting tax breaks to water their lawns amidst a major drought crisis.

Golf courses are another major guzzler, with one in Albuquerque taking 530 acre feet of public water per year, or around 650 million liters. In New Mexico as a whole, each golf course typically uses between approximately 123 million and 616 million liters of water yearly, making them the largest users in the commercial category.

While residential and commercial water overuse is a problem, the agricultural sector is by far the biggest contributor. Nearly 80% of New Mexico’s water supply goes to agriculture – primarily dairies, pecan, and alfalfa farms. The problem is circular: the more New Mexico heats up, the more water is needed, and the more resources are depleted. One report found that as temperatures rise, farmers will need to irrigate 15% more than they currently do to match current crop yields.

The Rio Grande drying up just south of Albuquerque in 2022.

However, there are local movements trying to change the system. Xeriscaping, or desert landscaping, is growing in popularity, and the Albuquerque water authority offers rebates in exchange for its adoption. There’s also pushes for education: Albuquerque offers free irrigation classes to help local gardeners better manage their water use. The benefits is substantial: when residents adopt desert landscaping, outdoor water use often drops from 50-70% of residential use to 3%. Through these efforts, from 1990 to 2015 residential water usage among Albuquerque Water Authority customers dropped by around 37 million liters per year. In fact, groundwater sources have even begun to rebound Nonetheless, little progress has been made in advancing agricultural water conservation. Ultimately, conservation, especially for residential use, is going in the right direction, but huge parts of the system continue to waste massive quantities of water. If current trends continue, Albuquerque is facing down a future as dry as the sand it stands on.

Bottom Line: Despite major droughts and scarcity, New Mexico continues to squander its water on agricultural and commercial uses. Some conservationists are trying to turn the tide and introduce a more desert-friendly landscape, but it’s an uphill battle which is moving far too slowly.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “Albuquerque’s lawn problem”

  1. Hi Natalie:

    All the points which should be made are being made by you Natalie. Also, your command of the written English language is excellent. I did pick one sentence out to (maybe) help you in writing.

    “Its water ‘savings account’ has been depleted, but many local landscapers still act like they’ve got a blank check.”

    Maybe this rewrite works better?

    With its water ‘saving account’ depleting, many Albuquerque landscapers and citizens act like they still have a water usage blank check.

    Some more information to help you understand how silly we can be in not conserving. I live in Maricopa, AZ which is just south of Phoenix, AZ. It is in the desert.

    Our home has desert landscaping. It has a drip water irrigation system which comes on each morning before the sun rises. Such watering works in this climate. Most or all of the nearby homes use similar. The plants do well. No grass bed. Instead, beds of small gravel to hold the land in place.

    However, there still exists a quest for green grass in public areas. The corporately controlled Homeowners Organizations will cut the grass short, replant with seed, and water it several times a day during the hottest times of the day. Green grass sells homes, builders profit and eventually leave the area. The occupants of the homes pay the price. No amount of warning gets their attention to conserve water.

    I hope this reply helps you.


  2. I completely agree this is an excellent overview putting out what appears all of the major issues. My only complaint is the headline — doesn’t seem lawns are the real problem.

    If I might suggest (my personal bit so feel free to ignore) , maybe take a deeper dive into “where is the money”. You note that “Golf courses are another major guzzler” — who do they benefit? You also highlight that “Nearly 80% of New Mexico’s water supply goes to agriculture – primarily dairies, pecan, and alfalfa farms”. Who owns these and why are such water intensive crops planted in such an arid place?

    Just guessing that the water problem is because of a small group of very wealthy people.

  3. Hi Natalia
    I have always found unbelievable that water scarce cities like Albuquerque prioritize watering laws and golf courses instead of saving the little water they have for more useful use in the future. Although water is in short supply, little is being done to save it, and it is not the 37 million liters saved by residents per year that compensate the 650 million liters used by Albuquerque’s golf course also per year. The difference is huge and people are delusional to believe this will solve water scarcity. Is there really no law prohibiting the watering of gulfs during periods of severe drought?
    I addition, I agree with the point made by Dan Mulligan: whom does golf courses benefit?

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