For about as long as anyone can remember the good citizens of Albuquerque have been living a fantasy when it comes to water. Despite receiving only eight inches of rain a year, residents have grown up washing their cars in the street, playing golf on lush coastal grass and using some 250 gallons of water per person per day - nearly twice as much as folks in Phoenix or Tucson.
Yet, even in hindsight it's hard to
blame them. Collectively, this high desert town of nearly 500,000,
which gets its entire water supply from an aquifer, was led to
believe by public officials that it sat atop an underground Lake
The aquifer allowed Albuquerque to
provide its citizens with some of the cheapest water in urban
America - over 60 percent less than what Santa Feans pay. Better
still, not only was the aquifer enormous, so the conventional
wisdom went, but it was perpetually replenished underground by the
Rio Grande River.
behaved as it understood the commodity," Mayor Martin Chavez says
in defense of his town's water ethic. "If you think you have an
infinite resource, using all you want is not wasteful."
Civic boosters in pursuit of boundless growth
delighted in the Duke City's good fortune. Housing permits were
handed out like balloons at a bank, and new business was lured with
the promise that water would never be a problem. Sure, there were
warnings as far back as the early 1950s that alternative sources of
water must be found, but there were always experts willing to sound
more optimistic, and, besides, the realists couldn't be heard for
all the bulldozers.
No less an expert than Steve
Reynolds, the former (and now deceased) New Mexico state engineer
for over 30 years, wrote in the Albuquerque Tribune in 1980 that
the city could comfortably grow to a population of 1.5 million.
"Albuquerque is probably better situated with respect to water,"
Reynolds said then, "than any large city in the Southwest."
If Reynolds were around today some citizens
might like to serve his misguided words to him
Albuquerque's long-overdue wake-up
call came in August 1993 when the U.S. Geological Survey released a
report showing that Albuquerque was pumping out its groundwater
nearly three times faster than it could be replenished.
Tests showed the underground water basin had
dropped by as much as 40 feet between 1989 and 1992 and nearly 140
feet in some places over the past three decades. More important,
the report shot down once and for all the notion that Albuquerque
had a limitless source of water.
The Rio Grande,
according to the USGS report, was not replenishing (or recharging)
the city's aquifer at anything approaching a steady state. In 1993
the Albuquerque area pumped about 160,000 acre-feet of water from
the aquifer, while the aquifer is being replenished by rainfall and
mountain snowmelt at close to 65,000 acre-feet a
The landmark USGS report set into motion a
predictable but nonetheless fascinating political
The city's water experts said there was
no immediate crisis, just a need for concern and more definitive
studies; the city council approved higher water rates and a
voluntary conservation program; business leaders promised
cooperation, but told everyone how little water their businesses
used compared to homeowners; community activists predicted that
conservation measures would fall hardest upon those least able to
afford them, and, from a distance, a few sages surveyed the tumult
and said, "We told you so."
"Albuquerque has been told
for 20-plus years an approximate limit of its resource," says Tony
Mayne, executive director of the Santa Fe Metropolitan Water Board.
"And they have simply refused to believe it. They would have you
believe the USGS told them one thing 20 years ago and a different
thing last year. It ain't so. It just ain't so."
Suburbs spoke up for their water interests, as
did everyone from Indian pueblo leaders to car wash owners. There
was some civic introspection about the city-sanctioned urban sprawl
of the "80s and some wonderment that a desert town could not have
had a water conservation program in place, but a great deal of the
public reaction to the water "wake-up call" of 1993 focused on one
very large company and its enormous thirst.
Chips in the desert
mesa just northwest of Albuquerque sits a 200-acre complex of
massive, square, beige and chocolate-colored buildings beneath a
flock of gangly construction cranes. Grunting earth-movers and
cement trucks plow up the mesa, as visitors churn through the
temporary parking lot looking for office buildings named Jurassic
Park and Godzilla.
Surrounding this futuristic
compound is an almost perfect demographic portrait of changing New
Mexico: on one side an evangelical church, cookie-cutter suburban
homes, fast food outlets and shopping malls; on the other, beside
the tranquil Rio Grande, a stylish bed-and-breakfast adobe mingles
with horse stables, vineyards and old Impalas on cinder blocks. New
immigrants from Dallas and Chicago walk their dogs past the few
remaining vacant lots of sage and cholla that defiantly remind
everyone they're still in the desert.
Intel, New Mexico.
When the world's largest
independent maker of computer chips, the Intel Corporation of Santa
Clara, Calif., came to this mesa in suburban Rio Rancho in 1980,
the giant had but two dozen employees and gave hardly a clue that
it would one day wield great influence in the Land of Enchantment.
Intel now employs 4,000 people in Rio Rancho,
plans to hire at least another 500 next year and says it creates at
least two spin-off jobs in the surrounding economy for every one
inside the sprawling plant. Average plant salaries are $35,000 -
more than double the per capita income in New Mexico, the fifth
poorest state. All of which made Rio Rancho the nation's fastest
growing small city in 1993.
By far the state's
largest private employer at one site - Wal-Mart ranks number 1
otherwise - Intel is a powerful constituency unto itself, rivaling
most neighborhood groups or labor unions, and crossing all racial,
religious and political lines. New Mexico politicians would be
certified fools to threaten those paychecks, and so, what Intel
wants, Intel usually gets.
When Intel announced
in 1993 that it wanted to build a new U.S. plant to make the new
Pentium and next-generation P6 chips, New Mexico officials, longing
to diversify from natural resource extraction and government jobs,
unveiled the most lucrative come-hither campaign the state had ever
seen. Their reward was Intel's $1.8 billion Fab 11, a project that
would become the third largest industrial expansion in the world
Beating Texas, California, Oregon,
Arizona and Utah for Intel's affections, New Mexico laid out $57
million in property tax abatements, $36 million in waived
new-equipment sales taxes and $20 million in manufacturing tax
credits. Taxpayers would foot $1 million for training Intel
workers, air pollution permitting would be streamlined and Sandoval
County, in addition to floating a $2 billion bond issue for Intel,
granted the chipmaker a lease on its mesa property you would have
loved back in college: Intel may grant easements and build or raze
improvements at will. It may sublease without the county's approval
and it has the option to buy the Rio Rancho site for $1 at the end
of the lease term.
An underlying assumption
throughout this corporate courting process was that the Albuquerque
area could provide all the water Intel would ever want. This was no
small concern because Intel and all semiconductor companies freely
admit they are, by the nature of their technology, world-class
The six- and eight-inch-diameter
silicon wafers Intel makes - they're later cut by diamond saws to
yield the thumbnail-size chips that serve as the brains in personal
computers - must be rinsed at least 20 times in hyper-clean water
to remove impurities. Exactly how much water is used in these
processes is something no company will divulge, but industry expert
Graydon Larrabee, a former Texas Instruments fellow, says that
among six companies he surveyed, an average of 2,840 gallons was
used to produce one six-inch wafer and perhaps twice that for an
eight-inch. If Intel's new chip factory makes about 30,000
eight-inch wafers a month, which Larrabee says is standard, the
amount of water used could reach 6 million gallons a day. (For
comparison, the daily use of a really gluttonous golf course is
about 1 million gallons. Intel says it returns 85 percent of this
water to the Rio Grande through Albuquerque's treatment plants;
however, that water never makes it back to the
In April 1993 - five months before the
alarming USGS report - Intel applied to the New Mexico state
engineer, who decides water allocation issues, for a new water-use
permit that would allow it to use 4,500 acre-feet of water a year,
or about 4 million gallons a day. An acre-foot is the amount of
water it takes to cover one acre to a depth of one foot, or about
326,000 gallons. In addition to Intel's pumped water allotment, it
would continue to use about 3.5 million gallons a day from Rio
Rancho Utilities, which also pumps from the
Intel's water request, arriving almost
simultaneously with the aquifer alarm, quickly struck a
In the neighboring village of Corrales,
just beneath the mesa on which Intel sits, residents had already
complained of foul chemical emissions from Intel which they said
caused skin rashes, nausea and headaches. (Intel installed $11
million worth of oxidizers to remove the odor.) Now the Corrales
citizens, fearing that Intel's request for three new deep-water
wells might affect their own shallower wells and the stately
cottonwoods along the Rio Grande, joined with the Sierra Club, the
New Mexico Environmental Law Center and others in formally opposing
the Intel water request.
a few feet of draw-down would put a lot of people's wells out of
business," said village board member Lawrence Vigil. Tim Kraft,
once Jimmy Carter's appointments secretary and now a Corrales
resident, said at a town meeting: "We've rolled out the red carpet,
and now we're finding out our guest has bad breath and an
Intel hydrologists say a
solid layer of underground rock separates its 2,000-foot wells from
the 200-foot wells of many Corrales residents, and so should not
affect their flow.
In June 1994, after a year of
study and a four-week hearing, State Engineer Eluid Martinez
granted Intel 72 percent of its water application, but required
Intel to drill monitoring wells to ensure that its pumping would
not affect wells in Corrales. The Intel request became a catalyst
for what Albuquerque had avoided for decades - a serious discussion
of water problems.
application raised a debate about what's good for the state,"
Martinez later told reporters. "It was a lot of water, but not more
than would be used to irrigate 2,000 acres of farmland. Drying up a
golf course or two would make that water available."
Doug Wolf, attorney for the New Mexico
Environmental Law Center, is not nearly so sanguine about the Intel
deal. "There's a real question," says Wolf, "about whether this is
the right kind of industry for an arid state that's looking to the
Says Wolf: "Intel argues that because
it provides so many jobs they should get whatever they want. The
logical extreme of that is that water should go to big business,
tourism, golf courses and exclusive, gated communities, which
destroy what we care so much about in New Mexico and will
homogenize us into Scottsdale or some kind of industrial center
like Baton Rouge."
Wolf's colleague, water
policy analyst Consuelo Bokum, points out that New Mexico water law
requires the state engineer to consider "the public welfare" in
allocating water - as does Alaska's and others - but that the
standard is rarely applied and remains largely undefined by the
courts. The state engineer "punted" on the issue of public welfare,
Wolf says, by simply assuming that any use of water that wasn't a
clear waste was
"If ever there was
an argument for taking the public welfare into account," Bokum
says, "it's in Albuquerque. The highest and best use of water has
historically been defined as who has the most money, and anyone
else be damned."
"Watch your head,"
shouts Intel's Richard Draper as he leads me under the scalp-high,
finger-thick metal tubes that course for 44 miles through the
windowless bowels of Intel.
briskly past boilers and air scrubbers on a classic dog-and-pony
plant tour where the company P.R. man could tell the clueless
reporter everything is run by gerbils on treadmills and he would be
none the wiser.
Intel is a bit overwhelming for
those who don't speak in gigabytes - a palace of science akin to
the innards of a nuclear submarine, only much taller and wider and
We peer through two narrow, vertical
windows in the doors of a "clean" room, where workers in white,
air-filtered, Gore-Tex "bunny" suits control the robots that
imprint the wafers with millions of electronic circuits. How clean,
you ask, is a "clean" room? Well, no particle in the air can be
larger than one micron. The width of a human hair is roughly 75
microns. Intel likes to say the rooms are 10,000 times cleaner than
a hospital emergency room.
"I'm still pretty awed by
what goes on in there," Draper says. "It's pretty 2001 stuff."
While Intel hardly needs anyone's sympathy -
Rio Rancho did half of Intel's $8.7 billion gross in 1993, and
Intel plans to build similar factories every year for the next six
- it's not hard to see why the giant chipmeister feels unfairly
picked upon by some in Albuquerque. Like "em or not, Intel has
never hidden the fact that it uses enormous amounts of water.
Knowing that, New Mexico politicians tripped over themselves to
offer Intel tax breaks and never expressed doubts about the water
supply. Yet, through unfortunate timing with the USGS report, Intel
- rather than dairy farmers and golf courses - became the
convenient whipping boy.
blame game kicks in early in the conservation debate," Draper tells
me back in his gray-carpeted cubicle office. "You've got to put in
perspective how much water we really use. Industries use only 3
percent of Albuquerque's water. Add Intel (which is not on
Albuquerque's water system) and it's 6 percent. After our expansion
it's 8 percent. Residential users make up 60 to 65 percent. We
could stop pumping tomorrow and it would be a blip on the screen."
Draper doesn't mention that Intel's presence has also created
thousands of new water users and new demands on sewers, roads,
schools and such.
Draper says Intel has spent
$260 million on environmental safeguards at the Rio Rancho plant
since the early 1980s and has contracted with New Mexico's Sandia
and Los Alamos Department of Energy labs to improve its water
conservation technology. Having been an Albuquerque TV reporter
before coming to Intel, Draper wasn't surprised by some of the
local anti-Intel attacks.
expansion came at a time of debate about growth in New Mexico," he
says. "We've had a rockier road in the last year than we would
like. I think New Mexico is more complex than (Intel's leaders)
thought. This isn't California or Arizona. There are different
cultural and economic issues here."
At a New Mexican restaurant
in Albuquerque's downtown neighborhood, Jeanne Gauna, director of
the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP), heads for a back table and
starts throwing punches at Intel before the chips and salsa can
"How could they have
not known about the water problems?" Gauna laughs. "All they know
is chips, right? Come on, they're exploiting a poor state. That's
SWOP is a 13-year-old community
group that has hounded Intel on chemical emissions, hiring
practices and tax breaks, not to mention water. SWOP released a
60-page report on Intel's activities that suggests New Mexico's
incentive package might cost taxpayers over $140 million more than
expected, questions Intel's commitment to hiring New Mexicans and
portrays the semiconductor industry as one that fouls the
environment, exposes workers needlessly to dangerous chemicals and
breaks promises to communities. Composed of veteran activists, SWOP
also crashed an Intel party at a local hotel by unfurling a 30-foot
banner that read: "No grçcias Intel - Super Profits, Super
Toxic Pollution - Real New Mexicans Pay Taxes!'
One might think that however tempting a target Intel presents,
Gauna would tread lightly on the giant because it still holds out
the hope of doubling her constituents' income. But, based on recent
reports that suggest Intel has always planned to rely heavily on
out-of-state workers brought to Rio Rancho, Gauna has never let
"I'm absolutely certain,"
says the 48-year-old grandmother with the fiery Basque eyes, "that
Intel will never be a good deal for Albuquerque. We're not
anti-development or anti-growth, but Intel has yet to prove that we
will benefit when almost half of the jobs are going to people from
out of state. The taxpayers have underwritten their entire
development, yet our communities aren't prospering."
But if not Intel, who? Ten different ways I ask
Gauna if Intel is so bad, what kind of industry and which company
of Intel's size would be better.
She dodges, she
weaves, she trots out the line about how New Mexico should grow
chilies, not (computer) chips, but suggesting a real alternative
would pay their taxes and pay for all the infrastructure," Gauna
says, "just about any industry could come in, but we should not
have to pay for their profits. Intel is not sustainable growth.
Their industry is famous for boom-and-bust cycles. There's no
guarantee those jobs we paid so dearly for will even be there in 10
or 20 years."
Fine points, but how should New
Mexico grow out of its dependence upon government, the military and
exploiting the land? As long as states will grovel for any
corporate prize it will be hard for New Mexico to turn down
companies that promise thousands of jobs and at least the hope of
For the Lords of
Sprawl, however, it is a laughable debate. For them, attracting and
keeping Intel has been the state's greatest economic achievement in
years, and they welcome all the new homes, roads, malls and fast
food emporia without a second thought. They see water conservation
as a worthy topic for junior high school science posters, but never
as a limit to growth and profits.
Mayor Martin Chavez can't afford to think that way. "If we don't
act now about the water problem," Chavez told me, "we will have a
crisis for which our grandchildren will condemn us." Chavez says he
has already rejected the overtures of a California firm that wanted
to relocate in Albuquerque but wanted a guarantee of 1 million
gallons of water a day.
"Three years ago Albuquerque
would've been shining their shoes," Chavez says, "but their
attitude wasn't one of conservation, so we basically just said, no
Chavez now heads into a city-wide
water education and conservation program designed to cut water use
by 30 percent in 10 years. He's already pushed through an increase
to monthly water bills and is preaching the new gospel to golf
courses and gardeners alike. The city is also looking into
injecting treated water back into the aquifer to replenish it, as
some other cities do.
If Chavez is smart, say
conservationists, he'll seize this historic opportunity to play the
role of Head Water Miser to the hilt. Maybe he should walk the town
handing out low-flow shower heads. People are willing to conserve
if they see it as an equitable, community-wide effort; and
Albuquerqueûos, especially, know they must change their
wasteful ways. But if they see water hogs being lured to the
desert, they will know that politics and money still control their
future - and Chavez will have squandered his chance.
Bruce Selcraig writes from
For further information,
contact: The SouthWest Organizing Project, 505-247-8832; Intel
(Richard Draper), 505-893-3371; New Mexico Environmental Law
Center, 505-989-9022; Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez,