Wildfire damage prompts calls for funding water system
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Dozens of traditional irrigation systems that supply community farms, gardens and orchards in northern New Mexico won’t flow with water this spring, forcing many families to decide whether to risk planting crops this year with no guarantee of water.
Rural officials testified Tuesday before a state Senate committee, saying the damage done to the acequia system is a devastating consequence of a historic wildfire that the U.S. Forest Service sparked last year during a prescribed burn operation that went awry.
Portions of the earthen canals have been wrecked by post-fire flooding and are choked with debris.
Paula Garcia, who heads the New Mexico Acequia Association, told lawmakers that the systems are managed by volunteers and that without resources, it will be impossible to clean and clear them before the irrigation season begins.
“They are full of silt, sediment, ash, debris and they will not flow this spring — and that’s endangering a whole way of life that’s been in our valley for hundreds of years,” said Garcia, who lives in the shadow of a burn scar that stretches across more than 530 square miles (1,373 square kilometers) of the Rocky Mountain foothills.
Garcia and others testified in support of legislation that would double the amount of money earmarked annually to fund community ditch infrastructure and construction projects. The bill also includes language that would allow the money to be used for disaster response, recovery, hazard mitigation, and for meeting matching requirements under other state and federal programs.
It’s one of a series of bills aimed at addressing what many lawmakers have described as a water crisis in the drought-stricken state — which has been complicated by fallout from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire in northern New Mexico and another blaze that charred more than 508 square miles (1,315 square kilometers) of the Gila National Forest.
Congress has approved billions of dollars in federal funding for wildfire recovery in northern New Mexico, but supporters of the state legislation noted that having a sustainable pot of money for farmers elsewhere would help fill the gap left when federal assistance has not been granted.
The New Mexico Legislature also is considering a measure that would clear the way for the state to provide zero-interest loans to local governments in order to repair or replace public infrastructure that has been damaged by wildfires.
Even when the Federal Emergency Management Agency is involved in surveying the damage and decides to dole out recovery funds, Sen. Pete Campos said New Mexico needs to have a way to brace for the next flood or the next wildfire.
“We’re trying to make all the resource available for the long term,” said Campos, whose district includes communities affected by wildfire.
Another measure that unanimously cleared the Senate Conservation Committee on Tuesday included a $150 million proposal to create a permanent trust fund that would be managed by state investment officers. The goal is to establish a consistent source of revenue for the design, construction, and restoration of reservoirs and dams statewide.
Supporters estimate that there’s at least an $8 billion need for water infrastructure improvements statewide.
State Engineer Mike Hamman, New Mexico’s top water official, told lawmakers that minimal zoning considerations have allowed for more housing developments to be constructed in areas where dams were originally designed only to protect agricultural lands, not homes and lives.
“When we talk about dams, irrigation, infrastructure, what we have done is neglected our water system overall in the state and that’s a very hard statement to make,” Campos said.