Let’s Get Real!

Wake up, New Mexico!  We need to be honest with ourselves. Water troubles are coming, big time!

IMHO it’s about time that we pulled our political heads out of the sand.  We’ve pursued the state agencies’ concepts for water planning for nearly three decades. Speaking softly has not worked.  Please excuse me if I am now shouting a bit. 

We need to move water planning beyond the preparation of documents not implemented or not suitable for implementation, which simply gather dust on shelves.  

At the moment, I’m planning a two-part post that will lay out a warning identifying the big minefields ahead, provide a recommendation of admittedly controversial remedies, and in a then second post how to effect those remedies.

The methods will include a set of institutional changes needed, identification of regional and state planning reforms needed, and a discussion of how to use the 50-year water plan as a vehicle to call you and the state to action:

* * *

Warning, Minefields Ahead 

Water is the lifeblood of New Mexico.  Its flow is in danger.  I believe it is well past time to confront the denial of, ignorance of, and the refusal to recognize New Mexico’s limits to its water supply.  

After millions of Americans have developed Covid-19, it is then too late to establish a comfortable remedy.  Just like with Covid-19, when clusters of New Mexicans run out of water, it will be too late to craft a comfortable remedy.  The time to act is now, before the crises intensely impact us. 

I have seen no credible dispute to the existence of the following water issues: 

  • Many areas of New Mexico are pumping their aquifers to near extinction,
  • The lower Rio Grande area is in court, credibly accused of draining Texas’ water from the river, 
  • The middle Rio Grande has been marginal in compliance with downstream delivery obligations, 
  • The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority is operating with an overly sanguine water plan,
  • The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District doesn’t allocate by priority and has provided irrigation where none has ever existed,
  • New Mexico’s state administrative personnel are over-stretched, just dealing with intrastate quibbles,
  • The permits and other permissions to use water far exceed the state’s physical and legal supplies,  
  • Substantial ongoing declines in surface water availability are predicted, and
  • State financial budgets have been decimated by issues other than running out of water.

Each of the above problems is poised to bite us in the derriere.  Together they can spell disaster.  Paraphrasing a well-known television sheriff, “We’re in a heap of trouble.”  The marginally funded and understaffed New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and its recently approved work plan for water planning is business as usual, or even less.  Business as usual cannot work.

We New Mexicans need a radical plan and resulting action on how to live through or change each of those coming crises before any or all of them hit us and it’s too late.  What are some approaches and key ingredients for possible remedies?

* * *

Remedial Components

We’re facing a sea of water trouble.

Reform is going to be painful.  New Mexico needs a radical plan of action on how to live through or change each of those coming crises before they hit us and it’s too late.  The 50-Year Water Plan that the Governor requested may be the right vehicle for delineating such a plan 

The necessary remedial features in such a plan will be painful, both difficult and controversial, but not as painful as running out of water or violating compact obligations. We need to figure out how to share that pain timely and equitably, a difficult challenge. Besides administrative rule-making and/or statutory change, some features may even require constitutional amendment to implement. Each of my recommendations include a remedial goal and an example of how the state might choose to meet that goal:

  • Provide an incentive for water users to consummate in-process adjudications of their water rights.  For example, declare that all in-process un-adjudicated water rights on January 1, 2025, to be junior to all other uses.
  • Apply proper priority to interstate compact downstream delivery obligations.  For example, recognize that all non-Indian water rights are junior to interstate compact water rights and administer/enforce accordingly.
  • Direct and fund the state agencies (OSE/ISC) to enforce wet water compliance with water rights.  For example, ernsure that lands from which water rights have been transferred are not irrigated.
  • Permit and administer groundwater in accordance with physical reality. For example, On January 1, 2025, void all groundwater permits that have not been or cannot ever be backed by adjudicated surface water rights.  Enforce accordingly.
  • Recognize, in accordance with NMSA 1978 § 72-14-43(A), that regions are best to plan for their water future, commensurate with the best available facts and science and with appropriate state support and constraints.  For example, separate regional from state issues. See 2003 State Water Plan, Appendix C.
  • Define and support with funding and technical expertise a set of hydrologically based common-sourced regions and their associated regional entities. For example, river basins and common aquifers.
  • Develop an approach for conducting effective regional water planning.  For example, an update of the 1994 and 2013 Regional Water Planning Handbooks, drawing on the suggestions as called for in the proposed Senate Bill 560 (2019).  
  • Establish consumptive use quotas on regions.  For example, identify water (surface and ground) beyond Indian water rights and compact obligations to establish quotas of consumptive use in river basin regions; establish declining groundwater mining quotas on groundwater-based regions that will preserve water for future generations.  
  • Make sure water is properly used and properly accounted for. For example, plan and implement automated sensors and reporting systems that track water rights/permits and associated water uses. 
  • Govern domestic well permits.  For example, implement measurement of annual uses, automated water use and limit depletions of water by domestic wells.
  • Help ease the pain to those who are impacted.  For example, create a fund to partially compensate for reductions in water permits or rights. 

And much more is needed.  Governor Lujan Grisham called for and New Mexico needs a strong 50-Year Water Plan followed by its vigorous implementation.  The 50-Year Water Plan should flesh out and incorporate at least the above features.   While state agencies are funded too thinly to keep their heads above water, some progress has been made in delineating the issues. But, it’s not enough!  We need broad sweeping reform to enable the state to implement the remedies.

In my next blog post I’ll discuss reforms that I believe are necessary to enable the state to implement the remedies. These include needs for institutional change, for regional water planning reform, and for state water planning reform, as well as a call to action. 

In the meanwhile, please come work with the Water Advocates to help institute reforms.  Additional participation is needed – everyone has some of the skills and experience that can be valuable in the process – viewpoint advocacy, technical knowledge, writing and/or speaking proficiency, organizing ability, project management know-how, social media facility, etc. 

Please send an email to Info@MRGWaterAdvocates.org so we can start a discussion of how your particular skills can best be applied.