Recent news has pushed that question to the top of my mind. The tiny town of Magdalena, N.M., depends on one well, and that well failed. What do you do then?
Magdalena plans to rehabilitate the current well and, together with the New Mexico Environment Department's Drinking Water Bureau, is developing a long-term solution. In the meantime, nearby towns and the state government are shipping in water by the truckload. Businesses and residents make do with rationing.
Magdalena's situation is a tough one. It's also one we in the United States, especially in the West and High Plains, will increasingly see. I saw another story that said hundreds of small towns in New Mexico alone depend on one well for their livelihood. Drought and overuse of existing groundwater will further tax water levels, making sure Magdalena isn't alone for long.
How should water-stressed states deal with situations like Magdalena's? It's easy to say "just move" to one homeowner whose well dries up. Telling 1,000 people to pack up and relocate just doesn't seem feasible. Yet, without outside help, there's a good chance Magdalena would have entered the history books.
When a hurricane devastates a coastal area, conversations inevitably follow about the rationale for rebuilding. We know the Gulf of Mexico will see hurricanes; it's only a matter of timing and degree. How often will coastal communities get hit, and will the next one be the storm of the century? In states that don't see hurricanes, it's easy to say, "Well, only a fool would build a home there."
We could think of water access issues as a hurricane with a snail's pace. A recent United States Geological Survey report concluded that groundwater depletion sped up in the last 10 or so years, with parts of the U.S. seeing drops of dozens of feet in groundwater levels as irrigation and other uses overdraw the system faster than recharge. Viewed through that lens, is it smart of build and live in areas likely to see water stress?
As I said earlier, Magdalena is working to solve its dilemma. They'll rehab and redrill. But what happens if that's no longer a viable, affordable solution? The town budgeted a few hundred thousand dollars to fix the issue. What if that wasn't enough, or if the town didn't have enough? Is it the state's job to bail a town out of a water crisis? Is that fair to taxpayers in that state who chose to live in more water-stable areas?
I suspect these conversations will happen more and more often as droughts and overuse have their way with groundwater levels.
Stay safe out there, drillers.