Albuquerque learns it really is a desert town

  • Inside Intel: A worker in a "bunny" suit is ready for the clean room

    Intel photo
  • The Intel office in Albuquerque

    Sam Howarth
  • Jeanne Gauna


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 Superior.

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.

"Albuquerque 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 fajita-style.

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 year.

The landmark USGS report set into motion a predictable but nonetheless fascinating political dance:

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

On a 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.

This is 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 that year.

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 water hogs.

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 aquifer.)

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 aquifer.

Intel's water request, arriving almost simultaneously with the aquifer alarm, quickly struck a nerve.

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.

"Just 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 unquenchable thirst."

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.

The debate begins

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.

"The Intel 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 future."

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 beneficial.

"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."

Squeaky clean

"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.

We're striding 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 cleaner.

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.

"The 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.

"Our 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."

That much is certain.

'No grçcias Intel'

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 arrive.

"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 such bullshit."

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 up.

"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 proves difficult.

"If they 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 environmental stewardship.

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.

Albuquerque 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 thanks."

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 Austin, Texas.

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, 505-768-3000.

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