Governor: New Mexico needs realistic, sustainable water plan
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has long talked about the importance of water to the arid state, even campaigning on the idea of creating a 50-year plan to guide management of the finite resource.
Her administration is now asking lawmakers for more money and manpower to start what some experts say will be a multiyear endeavor.
Legislative budget analysts have recommended less money than requested be spent on the effort, but the governor and other supporters say its critical the state starts charting a course that will allow for more flexibility in managing water supplies and infrastructure in the face of weather extremes brought on by a changing climate.
A matter of “absolute importance” is how Lujan Grisham describes her call for a long-term plan to safeguard New Mexico’s water resources.
“The challenges are daunting, but they are also an opportunity,” she said in a statement to The Associated Press. “My administration will work to ensure adequate supply and create a realistic, sustainable plan, rethinking how we manage our water supply and seeing that smart water management and conservation become a way of life in New Mexico.”
Among this year’s special legislative requests are an additional five full-time employees and $750,000 that would help with the water planning effort. State Engineer John D’Antonio, New Mexico’s top water official, has said requests for expanding his agency’s budget and staffing all dovetail with getting the 50-year water plan off the ground.
State water managers in the first week of the legislative session testified on behalf of filling existing vacancies and adding new workers to help with data collection and planning. They say they’re trying to rebuild their ranks after several austere years.
New Mexico’s most recent water plan was rolled out in 2018 and includes details about policies, historical legal cases and regional water plans. While it offers an inventory of the state’s needs, critics have said it fell short of laying out a concrete path for how to solve New Mexico’s water problems.
“In my mind, in order to actually start to prepare for what we can expect in the future we’ve got a lot more science to do,” said Rep. Melanie Stansbury, an Albuquerque Democrat who has built a career on water rights issues.
That will include information gleaned from an ongoing study of the Rio Grande basin that’s being led by the federal Bureau of Reclamation as well as data that Stansbury said will serve as a baseline to help water managers better estimate what they can expect in terms of river flows and precipitation and how that might affect existing infrastructure.
Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the Interstate Stream Commission, told lawmakers during a recent hearing that the planning process is aimed at identifying both areas of resiliency and risk along the Rio Grande and other basins throughout the state.
“Where are the places where our communities are at risk or other values that we have at risk? How do we address those and how do we set in place today the types of activities that need to happen to solve those problems 20, 30, 50 years into the future?” he asked.
Without a substantial water plan, supporters say New Mexico has been losing out on federal funding that could otherwise help with infrastructure projects or efforts to restore watersheds.
Jen Pelz with the group WildEarth Guardians said she sees the value of putting together a water budget for the state but that planning should involve strategies for curbing existing over-allocation to account for environmental needs and the effects of climate change.
“This, however, would require hard choices — both admitting that rivers and wildlife have value and that existing human uses are not sacrosanct,” she said.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for the water planning effort will be the lack of staff and funding to do the aquifer and river monitoring that will be needed for each of the state’s distinct basins, said Norm Gaume, a former director of the stream commission. He pointed to other demands facing New Mexico’s water managers, from a legal fight with Texas over management of the Rio Grande to the adjudication of water rights around the state and a dispute over the Gila River.
“In most of the state, we’re using up the groundwater and we don’t have good handle on that. So we have a lot of room to make up,” Gaume said.