Water expert says San Juan County in relatively good position

Phil Pohl will cover variety of topics in presentation at San Juan College

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Water expert Phil Pohl will discuss desalination, agriculture and the energy-water nexus during a June 21 presentation at San Juan College.
  • Pohl will speak at 6 p.m. Monday, June 21 in the 9000 rooms of the Henderson Fine Arts Center on the San Juan College campus.
  • His presentation also can be accessed via Zoom meeting.
  • Call 505-566-4100 for more information.

FARMINGTON — Even as the news about the Southwest's long-term water future seemingly becomes worse by the day, water expert Phil Pohl makes a compelling argument that the situation in San Juan County is relatively rosy.

"I think it's a good situation, one of the best on the planet," said the Tijeras middle school math and science teacher and member of the Engineering Advisory Board at Navajo Technical University. "I think they're in good shape."

Pohl — who will deliver a lecture on water issues at 6 p.m. Monday, June 21 in the 9000 rooms of the Henderson Fine Arts Center on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington — bases that assessment on what he has seen during his travels over the last 20 years to locales such as Libya, Tunisia, El Salvador, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Holland, Jordan, Italy and Mexico.

Related:San Juan County Commission declares drought disaster

The former Sandia National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researcher said most other water-starved places on the planet have all fallen into the same trap. But residents of San Juan County have benefited from years of wise, rational policy making when it comes to allocating their water, which will allow the county to avoid the kind of pitched battles among competing interests that other places are likely to see in the years ahead.

"Everyone else on the planet has overpromised, overdemanded and overused their water," he said. "But you had cool, calm, collected people making decisions."

That's not to say San Juan County won't face challenges of its own in the future, especially if the intense drought that has gripped the Southwest for much of the last 20 years deepens. But Pohl said it is clear the county long has had people from multiple agencies performing the hard work that is necessary to keep the water supply and demand in balance.

Phil Pohl says San Juan County is much better off than most place in regard to its balance of water supply and demand.

He said during a June 17 phone interview that he was still preparing himself for his lecture in Farmington, which will include a PowerPoint presentation and touch on such areas as desalination, agriculture, the Gold King Mine spill and the energy/water nexus. Pohl said he tends to view water issues from a "broad, 30,000 feet" perspective, but he looks forward to interacting with his audience here and listening to their questions and observations about those subjects.

Pohl's lecture is being presented in conjunction with the San Juan School of Energy and the San Juan Soil & Water Conservation District, and he expects representatives of both those entities to make up a sizable portion of the crowd. But he also anticipates there will be many regular folks in the audience, and he promised his presentation would be accessible to everyone.

"I might go warp speed on science at least once, but nothing too serious," he said, chuckling.

Pohl noted the increased attention water issues have been receiving in the media of late. He said he welcomes that focus, though he noted jokingly that only begins to approach the degree of attention the "Friends" reunion has received.

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He knows the audience he faces here likely will be especially interested in his thoughts on the intersection of water and energy, given San Juan County's long-held status as a fossil fuels producer. He talked about the many ways in which water is integral to oil and gas production, and the generation of power, even though many people don't think of it in those terms.

He cited the potential for cleaning and reusing the water that is part of the drilling process. In San Juan County, that amounts to approximately 1,000 acre-feet a year, he said — not a lot, but a total that could make a difference.

"It's something that could be used, that could add value to the community if it were cleaned up," he said. "Right now, it's just being reinjected, and that's not the best option."

A significant amount of water also is used in the cooling towers at the county's power plants, he said, though those facilities are not as water intensive as many of their counterparts across the United States.

Pohl said because of the arid environment that surrounds residents of the Southwest, he believes people here may have a little better appreciation for their natural environment and the value of water than folks in other, wetter parts of the country. But he believes the time is quickly coming when everyone will have to face up to the realities of a tighter water supply.

"Until the stress starts to squeeze people, nothing gets done," he said.

Pohl's lecture also will be presented via a Zoom meeting format. To join the meeting, enter the URL link sanjuancollege-edu.zoom.us/j/92453834758. Call 505-566-4100 for more information.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.