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New Mexico struggles with funding drinking water projects

June 23, 2021 GMT
FILE - This undated file photo shows the dam at Elephant Butte Lake in Elephant Butte, N.M. Many New Mexico communities are behind the curve when it comes to investing in drinking water infrastructure as persistent drought threatens supplies, and the state's fragmented funding process makes it hard to know what taxpayers are getting for their money, legislative analysts said Wednesday, June 23, 2021. (Roberto E. Rosales/The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File)
FILE - This undated file photo shows the dam at Elephant Butte Lake in Elephant Butte, N.M. Many New Mexico communities are behind the curve when it comes to investing in drinking water infrastructure as persistent drought threatens supplies, and the state's fragmented funding process makes it hard to know what taxpayers are getting for their money, legislative analysts said Wednesday, June 23, 2021. (Roberto E. Rosales/The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Many New Mexico communities are behind the curve when it comes to investing in drinking water infrastructure as persistent drought threatens supplies, and the state’s fragmented funding process makes it hard to know what taxpayers are getting for their money, legislative analysts said Wednesday.

New Mexico provided roughly $876 million for water projects over a five-year period. But the analysts told members of the powerful Legislative Finance Committee during a meeting that communities aren’t doing enough to leverage federal and local dollars.

A review of the state’s numerous financing mechanisms for water projects found that New Mexico over the last decade made proportionally more grant and loan funding available for water projects than any other state in the U.S. But inconsistent vetting and piecemeal funding put projects at greater risk of being delayed or derailed, according to the review.

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About one-third of the state-funded local water projects that were examined did not meet their intended purpose — even several years after the initial funding was issued.

In the village of Maxwell, for example, $1 million was spent to drill and equip a new drinking water well that could be used in times of drought. A $30,000 shortfall resulted in the well not being hooked up to electricity, leaving the project unfinished and unable to yield any public benefits. Similar issues were found with projects in Lovington and Pecos.

Republican Rep. Larry Scott of Hobbs described the process as a “train wreck.”

“The way we’re doing it now — from a business person’s perspective — there’s no comprehensive effort toward a sustainable goal. That’s what we need to be looking for here,” said Scott, who is an engineer.

The concerns raised in the report also prompted lawmakers to question whether New Mexico will be able to efficiently spend its share of federal pandemic relief aid and infrastructure funds to address communities’ water needs.

President Joe Biden in March proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that includes more than $110 billion to address aging water systems, pollution and water-related natural disasters. While the White House has been short on details about how the money will be distributed if approved by Congress, New Mexico officials said many of the state’s most significant water-related challenges would fall into the categories that have been outlined as priorities.

Still, the report noted that communities often seek grants before tapping local revenues or pursuing funding through the state’s federally backed revolving loans. Analysts said those revolving loan funds had untapped capacity of about $125 million as of this spring.

The uncommitted balances have drawn the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Like the legislative analysts, federal officials determined the availability of state grants is undercutting interest in federal funding options even though state dollars are typically not enough to see a project through to completion.

If improvements aren’t made, analysts warned lawmakers that future federal funding could be compromised.

According to the report, federal support for drinking water and wastewater projects has declined overall since the 1980s, while state and local spending have risen.

The problems with the state’s water project funding system stretch back at least two decades. Analysts expressed some frustration during Wednesday’s meeting, noting recommendations have been made in the past and previous attempts to change the system have fizzled.

This time, analysts recommended that New Mexico lawmakers consider creating an interagency team to vet funding requests using a scoring system that could help prioritize projects on an annual basis. They also suggested that scoring and policies be standardized across the state’s grant programs and that a report on all water project requests be submitted to the Legislature each year so the state can begin to track the outcomes of the spending.

Officials with the New Mexico Environment Department said the agency would need more money and personnel to implement the recommendations.