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Surviving a warmer world: Global forecast is 'mostly dry'

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To meet its goals, the city tightened its building code to improve efficient use of water. It gave tax rebates to residents and businesses for each low-flow toilet or shower head installed in existing buildings. It offered a $100 credit for installing water-efficient washing machines. It gave rebates for xeriscaping – replacing water-hungry lawns and plants with drought-tolerant species – and it changed landscaping codes to require this approach in new developments. The city also irrigates its parks and other public lands with treated municipal wastewater and has been hunting down and repairing leaky water mains.

Sending water back underground

Albuquerque also has built a diversion dam across the Rio Grande and is completing an enormous water-distribution facility nearby. Both open for business next year.

When they do, the city will rely on river water for 70 percent of its needs and use the underground aquifer to make up for shortfalls during dry years. During wet years, it plans to use some of the Rio Grande water to recharge the aquifer.

While the new IPCC reports may begin to add new urgency to water planning, up until now it's been difficult to factor global warming into water-resource plans, Mr. Stomp says.

The earlier models he's relied upon have given conflicting answers to questions surrounding local precipitation.

"One says there's going to be more snow; one says there's going to be less snow," he says. But planning for severe, prolonged droughts has always been part of the planning process, he says.

Over the long term, population growth is likely to push other water-saving approaches to the fore, such as desalination of brackish underground water and reuse of municipal wastewater for drinking. At least six cities in the state are considering wastewater-to-drinking-water conversions either through a direct treatment and recycling system or by using treated wastewater to recharge aquifers.

Ironically, such efforts could make it more difficult for the state to balance the competing demands of its urban and rural interests. It will also be harder to meet its obligations to send some of its river water on to Texas, says John D'Antonio, New Mexico's state engineer.

In the West, agriculture consumes most of the water. Many farmers here are installing more-efficient irrigation systems that lose less water to seepage as it moves along irrigation ditches. But that "leaking" water also contributes to groundwater reserves. Now less water is finding its way back into aquifers.

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