From the President’s Desk: Sweetwater

SWEETWATER NEGLECTED, BADWATER PRIORITIZED

Sweetwater is better than Badwater. As a grade school kid living ½ block from the main US highway from El Paso to Los Angeles as Interstate 10 was being built to bypass Deming, I remember being curious about places named Badwater or Sweetwater, sour water wash and gypsum draw.  Google Maps shows three Sweetwater Streets in Albuquerque and Santa Fe today. Many places are named that across the West.  Sweetwater is a generic goods and services brand, too.

The sweet waters of New Mexico are necessary for all life in our beloved state, in all our home places, our querencias. An acerbic senior ISC water engineer told me 25 years ago that we know where New Mexico’s water is.  It is where we live, irrigate, water livestock, hunt and fish, and enjoy our heritage.  He didn’t need to say “sweetwater.”

New Mexico’s sweetwater overuse and increasing scarcity not a State of New Mexico priority. New Mexico is in a water crisis. It is a crisis that begs for our actions this year, not next, which is simply not the way New Mexico’s elected leaders behave because they do not know. The crisis will be realized gradually on the human time scale of years and decades. Intentional informed action today will make tomorrow as good as it can be.  Continued neglect will destroy New Mexico’s future, as we watch 40 years of water stewardship neglect continuing with little concern from the top.

Water can’t wait.  Water scarcity is increasing.  Pumps are everywhere without any control of pumping other than the permit to drill them. Surface water right owners do not have enough, and are granted state permits to pump out-of-sight, out-of-mind groundwater that is always there, accelerating groundwater overuse. 

The only realistic opportunity to meet our needs and create a livable New Mexico with water for future generations of New Mexicans is much better stewardship of our remaining sweetwater. Someone reminded me of an adage that could have come from a southern NM uncle:  if you are digging a hole and begin to wonder if you can get out or it will cave in on you, stop digging. 

Why are we digging until all we have left is badwater?

New Mexico is pumping irreplaceable groundwater and has been at it for a century without an eye to the future.  This summer, Portales ran out of water. Through neglect, that historic New Mexico community, home to Eastern New Mexico University, the pride of many east-side legislators, ran out of water.  

What will the City fathers and the State do to keep Portales from becoming a ghost town, like others across New Mexico that dried up and blew away after exhausting resources? Where has the water gone, the scarcity of which threatens Portales’ very survival? Not for the greater good or the public welfare of the region, or of the State.

Public welfare of the state is the measure of state law for discretionary state engineer decisions. Public welfare of the region is a new legal term created by the we are 2023 Water Security Planning Act by the House Floor Amendment. We are the state most dependent on groundwater. We are mining it out, and when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. Since water is life, and without water, there is nothing, so will we. What is the public welfare of the state, and the public welfare of the region, in that light?

Formerly gushing wells are dribbling and well drillers can’t begin to meet the burgeoning demand for new and replacement wells. We are blowing off Rio Grande interstate water sharing agreements despite the clear trend toward a brand new decade-long lawsuit brought by the Texas. How much longer will we chase the water?

The New Mexico default answer is, until the rivers are all sand and the aquifers are empty. By their actions, our elected leaders show that water security, which requires stopping grossly unsustainable and low benefit water depletions, is not on their minds.

Badwater investment. Planned badwater treatment for use may be part of a future vetted water resources management portfolio but has no place in a wise water management strategy that begins with the end in mind, a livable future for New Mexicans throughout our state. And puts first things first. 

Tremendous opportunity costs.  Meanwhile, none seemed to recognize the dispute between the Legislature and the Governor was blocking state funding for State water agency work essential to New Mexico’s survival.  This essential, foundation work would, after sufficient investment, tell us how much groundwater we have left and how fast we are using it up.  We will wait to rev that effort up until a future day when we have more money? What?

Opportunity cost examples.  No funding was provided for expanding the groundwater science staff at the NM Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources nor drilling aquifer characterization monitoring wells to tell us how much water we have left, and the years remaining. New Mexicans deserve to know that.

The Governor proposed a few large appropriations of federal funds for water infrastructure, like drilling the monitoring wells and for an Indian Water Rights Settlement Fund. None survived the 2024 Legislature. One casualty was $4.5 million in federal ARPA funding allocated to begin a planned 10-year program to systematically drill and equip aquifer research and monitoring wells.

Failing to fund accelerated implementation of the 2019 Water Data Act is in my view the most egregious failure of the Executive and the Legislature to put first things first. The data required for all state funded regional water planning must come from full implementation of the NM Water Data Initiative. §72-14A-4 (7) NMSA 1978 

Problems with the Legislature. Concurrently, Legislative Finance Committee staff reportedly were justifying not funding implementation of the 2023 Water Security Planning Act with their own internal longstanding misinformation blaming the ISC and regional water planners for producing shelf reports, shamelessly or without knowledge that shelf reports were exactly what was authorized by the “not-planning, not intended for implementation” statute passed in 1987.  

The 2023 Water Security Planning Act replaced the narrow, useless 1987 statute. The Legislature’s appropriators again did not adequately funding implementation of that planning law passed unanimously last year commensurate with the urgent need. Their staff based this neglect on irrelevant uninformed criticism of the law that was. Who can explain this? I can. They simply don’t know what they don’t know about New Mexico’s water crisis.

Problems with the Executive. After recovering from my shock and anger witnessing the Senate Conservation Committee hearing of “dummy bill” SB294 approximately 50 hours before the 2024 Legislature ended, I asked myself if I was hearing misinformation or disinformation.

The Executive’s principal spokespersons for the badwater, so-called strategic water supply during the session, that emerged at the 11th hour as SB294, are knowledgeable, sophisticated professionals, one a professional engineer, the other a lawyer.  Their facts and inferences were not reasonable or true, from my perspective. Their arguments were not rational. Did they intend harm through disruptive out-in-front support for an ocean idea imported to the high desert withholding all judgment as to feasibility and priority? Intention to harm is the criterion distinguishing disinformation from misinformation. Regardless, the initiative they were leading as the faces of the Executive created harm. 

Produced water treatment was removed from the SB294 before introduction.  The Governor put it back.  Follow the money. Our state’s reins are held by oil and gas.

Parallel of the Gila Diversion Project modus operandi. The Executive pitch to date for the Governor’s badwater project shares characteristics with the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission’s wasteful attempt to develop the known-to-be-infeasible Gila Diversion Project from 2004 to 2020.  The parallels I see:

Throw money at the problem while avoiding a feasibility study

Facts are not favorable so are secret or immaterial

Disinformation paints a fantasy word picture of an unfeasible outcome 

Opacity hides the fatal flaws of the proposed project, its data, technology, costs, benefits, beneficiaries, and the self-serving participation of key players

Known Unknowns. I admired Senator Harold Pope, Jr.’s thoughtful critique of the dummy badwater project bill SB294 at the Senate Conservation Committee hearing about 50 hours before the session ended.  The legislature’s streamed video recording is available here.  Senator Pope observed we need answers to the many known unknowns about the project before it is fully funded.

Everything is unknown, including the basic feasibility and any assurance this project will be assessed to any reasonable public standard. It is ironic that the law imposes stringent proper planning, vetting and prioritization requirements on anything proposed by a regional water planning entity, but the same doesn’t apply to the so-called strategic water supply.

We can see the opportunity costs as described above. We can’t assess unintended consequences of the proposal because nothing is known.  

South American public policy scholars. My thinking went back to the cohort of South American Fulbright Scholars I was privileged to work with at the University of New Mexico in June 2023. They loved getting to know New Mexico and learning about the Middle Rio Grande and our water. Water policy is not something they had considered previously because their federal government manages their country’s water resources and uses with more equity, appropriate prioritization, and realism.

After three weeks at UNM with international academic scholars and Peace Engineering leaders, the scholars’ water policy case study diagnosis and remedy get right to the point. Regular type is theirs; italicized is mine.

Research continues to find problems and propose solutions that don’t reach the people  

New Mexico legislators are people.  

Water is a community-problem.  Community problems require community-driven solutions. 

The only way to generate sustainable solutions is to understand water as a collective action problem and empower the people to take action

https://mrgwateradvocates.org/water-an-urgent-community-problem-requiring-a-community-driven-solution/

What concerns me most is that consequences on New Mexico of the fundamental hydrologic and climate reality we face are an unknown, unknown to most NM legislators 

When Senator Pope talked about the known unknowns of a not-even-located desal or oilfield toxic wastewater treatment for reuse plant or any high tech, high energy required solutions, my mind went to the highly inconvenient truths of our hydrologic and climate reality that most NM Legislators do not know, or even know that they don’t know.  

The Fulbright Scholars participated in meetings with VIPs, including local and state elected officials, the University of New Mexico Global Studies program had previously arranged. One aspect of New Mexico’s water problem is social, a public lack of awareness of the water crisis known to water science but unknown and unconsidered by almost all. A late 2021 Thornburg Foundation/Water Foundation-sponsored water attitudes poll questioned a cross section of urban, suburban, and rural New Mexico voters across New Mexico.  

I included the poll interpretation and data in the scholars initial Middle Rio Grande case study orientation and suggested they consider using that approach in their prearranged meetings.  They asked the VIPs about New Mexico’s most important problems.  None volunteered that water is a most important problem. The scholars asked, what about water? All VIPs agreed it was important. None knew much about it. Most indicated someone else is working on it.

The poll report explains that was the public reaction to the pollster. But once asked what about water, look what they said:

The truth is that many scientists and state staffers are working on water without adequate resources in this time of crisis but huge budget surplus. Few lawmakers are. No state appropriators are commensurate with the crisis. The Governor is a little in, mostly out,

Unless addressed, New Mexico water problems are terminal across New Mexico. If our people and our leaders don’t learn, understand what we must face and deal with, we are going to evaporate our people and economy.  

I remember a meeting not that long ago with David Abbey, the legislative key financial staffer who presided at the right hand of Senator John Arthur Smith. This was around 2019, when the Water Advocates tried to get regional water planning reform legislation passed.

Abbey said New Mexico’s water problems are chronic. What I argued, and he would not accept, was that while water is indeed a chronic problem, hydrologic reality is catching up with us and severe global warming has overtaken us.  What may appear chronic to a budget expert with little knowledge of water is actually a worsening full-blown crisis enveloping us right now. Failure to recognize the crisis and act to mitigate it and adapt has consequences. Just look around at the scarcity emerging. This is not drought. This is permanent.

Phil King recently observed that as a species, humans have failed miserably for four decades to ignore the warnings of expert scientists that we must mitigate greenhouse gasses.  Similarly, now we have no choice but to adapt to having much less water now or see our descendants as climate refugees. When we overpump our groundwater, we are eating our seed corn.

Sweetwater Bright Spots to Close.   

Dr. Phil King also observes opportunities for effective action abound. We can do this. We have to start. We have to go big. We love New Mexico and its people. We love our home places. We will take action.

State Engineer Mike Hamman in 2024 broke the Governor’s and Legislature’s essential lock on agency staff capacity.  He won 27 of the 31 new positions he openly requested, all associated with general categories of endeavor.   

The Legislature funded priorities and projects of New Mexico’s environmental values community represented by the Water Task Force workgroup addressing river stewardship and watershed health but not aquifer health. The Legislature also funded communities and community infrastructure.  

Two Legislators provided allocations of their junior money to water.  Senator McKenna allocated $200,000 to the State Engineer to fund OSE implementation of the 2019 Water Data Act.  Rep. Marian Mathews allocated $160,000 for implementation of the 2023 Water Security Planning Act, the only appropriations by the Legislature for those named purposes.  Thank you to Senator McKenna and to Rep. Marian Mathews.

The NM Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at NM Tech received half of what the New Mexico Department of Higher Education requested to provide reliable actionable data and information for New Mexico’s more resilient water future.  Emerita Director Nelia Dunbar, also a NM Water Ambassador, reported last week the NMBGMR would fully fund the water education program for Legislators. The Bureau of Geology will ask again in 2025 for aquifer monitoring and mapping staff and capital money to drill the wells to provide the data that will cause us to wake up and decide to act.

Now, to all our readers.  Please!  Write your Senator and your Representative and ask that they fully participate in all the Water Education for Legislators programs during the 2024 Interim. We must change course or perish. They Governor and Legislators need to learn about our water crisis and provide resources to the water agencies and the people to find the transformative change New Mexico’s survival requires.

4 Comments

  1. John W Hawley on March 7, 2024 at 11:21 am

    RIGHT ON AS USUAL, NORM.
    “Above all, it is a land where water has always been scarce and therefore precious, a thing to be fought for, prayed for and cherished in beautiful vessels—a land where thunder is sacred and rain is a god.” Harvey Fergusson, 1933, Rio Grande: New York, Alfred A. Knopf, “Country,” p. 10



  2. Carl Peterson on March 7, 2024 at 2:23 pm

    Once again, water assessment was underfunded this session. The NM legislature would rather stumble in the dark than illuminate the size of the water management task we are now facing. This foolish approach will end in disaster for our State. We can’t drink oil! Great article Norm!



  3. Charles Goodmacher on March 8, 2024 at 11:09 am

    “ Follow the money. Our state’s reins are held by oil and gas.” indeed Norm – not a single piece of legislation, or even memorials that were opposed by oil and gas passed in the recent session! The governor and the legislature are OK with climate related legislation so long as it is not opposed by oil and gas. Thankfully, the governor did issue a veto of one small item in the tax package that would have shifted costs from producers to the taxpayers. So, in that case, they didn’t get what they wanted, but, they are able to stop good bills that protect New Mexicans.



  4. Judy Williams on March 8, 2024 at 1:23 pm

    Excellent analysis. The League of Women Voters follows water issues as best we can, and share the disappointment with the lack of action and support. Also – the League has complained for many years, and has made recommendations to the legislature, abut the “dummy” bills. They offend the laws of transparency among other things. They allow issues that have been rejected to crop up again on the sly.



Leave a Comment