These are urgent matters. Without action, they will become dire.  Both require State leadership and funding.   Both are being neglected even though the issues present grave and unacceptable risks — economically, environmentally, socially, to water equity, and to the State’s treasury.

Rio Grande March 7 near Alameda

Another Water Advocate and I spent March 7th, a calm, warm pre-Spring, post-covid-vaccination Sunday afternoon, canoeing eight miles of the Rio Grande east of Corrales. We interrupted small and large flocks of waterfowl, a really Great Blue Heron, and white terns, and quietly acknowledged families, hikers, and photographers sharing our enjoyment of the river. The river gages said the flows were about 25% below normal compared to the average of historical March 7ths, but the day seemed quite normal, if unseasonably warm.

No hint was evident of 2021’s dire river forecast. There were no signs of the overuse of declining river flows that is leading New Mexico toward big, expensive trouble, this time in the Middle Rio Grande. The river was peaceful, a calming break from the Legislature.

Frustratingly, the 2021 Legislature collectively has decided that changing the way we manage our shared water resources to adapt to climate change will once again be postponed. Please keep reading to the urgent action request regarding the Legislature at the end.

The water flowing past Albuquerque and all of the Middle Rio Grande this year has heightened importance. Water will be scarce. The State Engineer and the Conservancy District have discouraged 2021 planting. The irrigation season will begin late, end early, and will be sparse. There is little stored water. Some people expect river drying will include the Albuquerque reach.

The State Engineer, Interstate Stream Commission and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District are cooperating this year to repay water for the Lower Rio Grande, that is, below Elephant Butte Dam. Last year, the State Engineer requested and received extraordinary permission that made it possible to use Lower Rio Grande water destined for Elephant Butte but legally locked up, so to speak, in El Vado Reservoir due to New Mexico’s water debt. The State Engineer cited the crucial needs to keep the river wet, provide relief during the covid summer, and finish crops.

All three Compact states said yes. We consumed the water in the middle valley last summer. Our water debt increased by 57,000 acre-feet in 2020. The Middle Rio Grande’s cumulative total arrears are about 96,000 acre-feet as of the end of 2020, according to the ISC’s latest but still unofficial accounting.

How much water is 96,000 acre-feet? It is about ten times as much water as Santa Fe provides to its water customers annually. It is about equal to annual diversions by the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority from its wells and the Rio Grande in one year. But Water Utility Authority customers consume–use up–evaporate–only about one-third and return the remainder to the river as treated wastewater. Therefore, the 96,000 acre-foot debt is about three times the amount of water the Water Utility Authority customers deplete annually.

This water debt substantially constrains water storage in El Vado Reservoir and Santa Fe’s two small reservoirs on the Santa Fe River.

2021 will bring a wake-up call that will be hard to ignore. Extraordinary drought in 2021 will provide little water. Even less water will be available for use in the Middle Rio Grande without increasing our debt and our legal peril. Inequities will become plain.

Rio Grande Compact compliance history leading to current 96,000 net accrued water debt at the end of 2020.
Annual Compliance Last 10 Years–the Middle Rio Grande region depleted 158,500 acre-feet of water apportioned for use below Elephant Butte Dam.

A violation of the Rio Grande Compact’s shortage-sharing legal requirements occurs when New Mexico’s net debt exceeds 200,000 acre-feet. One bad year, unlikely, or more likely just two or three years on the current trend could put us over that line and into U.S. Supreme Court litigation with the State of Texas and perhaps the United States of America.

Texas sued New Mexico in 2014 over compact issues below Elephant Butte Dam. The Supreme Court allowed the USA in 2018 to join the lawsuit against New Mexico. The lawsuit is costing New Mexico tens of millions and is far from over.

New Mexico (and we who live and use water in the Middle Rio Grande) must take action to prevent the existing litigation from spilling upstream into the Middle Rio Grande. We can and must do that by keeping New Mexico’s accrued water debt to the Lower Rio Grande within the Rio Grande Compact’s allowable limit of 200,000 acre-feet.

A recent Sunday newpaper front page story, recent compelling video and print stories, and a PBS New Mexico In Focus line panel discussion (starts at 49:40) are on point.

The days and years of reckoning are upon us. That reckoning has been postponed by a succession of one-time measures, focusing on conservation while allowing us to deny the limits of our water supply and not plan for climate change. Our ability to postpone and deny that reckoning is coming to an end.

We must pivot to cooperatively face our existential water supply issues and share shortages, including complying with our compact delivery obligations to provide the Lower Rio Grande with its legal share.


Science says as the temperature of the atmosphere goes up, it can hold an exponentially greater amount of water, which drives much higher evapotranspiration losses from everything green and everything wet. Temperature will drive increased depletions, leaving us with less water, even if the supply were to remain the same.

Dr. David Gutzler, a UNM climate scientist, professor, and member of the International Panel on Climate Change, presented at the 2019 Legislature’s initial meeting of the House Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee. His verbatim oral conclusions in 2019:

My plea is that we need to modernize water policy in New Mexico as best we can and as equitably as we can but in recognition of a changing climate in which surface water supplies are diminished across the state.  I think we have no choice but to do that.  Please don’t ignore what is happening with the supply of water in our state and what is likely to happen in the future.

It’s better to plan than to get thrown under the bus.  Sooner is better than later.

2019 Legislative Testimony by a UNM Climate Change scientist

Action needed: Please Email Senate Finance Committee Members

Two years after his plea we are in much worse shape on the Rio Grande. The Legislature as a whole continues to ignore the realities of climate change. No substantive legislation to start adapting or planning for the forthcoming water crises will be signed into law.

The 2021 Legislature has to date denied the Governor’s and Interstate Stream Commission’s request for a $750,000 appropriation to fund climate change water planning. The Legislature has also denied the ISC funding it may require to keep Rio Grande water flowing downstream. ISC has laboriously constructed and maintained an expensive channel to convey water across the vast miles of dry reservoir bottom so that water reaches the pool at the bottom of Elephant Butte Reservoir, near the dam, where it will be counted. Otherwise it will spread out, evaporate, and be lost.

ISC Director Schmidt-Petersen in testimony to the Senate Finance Committee was clear regarding the urgent needs for funding included in the Governor’s budget but rejected by the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. Please listen to the ISC Director’s explanation at 1:32:15 to the Senate Finance Committee budget hearing on this Legislature video recording. It’s five minutes.

My Request to Readers: Please call or send a short, pointed email to the Senate Finance Committee members and Senate Leadership to fund the OSE and the ISC at the levels included in the Governor’s budget request. Otherwise, the Legislature will be hamstringing us all. The only emails that will get read will have a very short title, on point. Senate Finance Committee members’ contact information is on this Legislature webpage. Click on the committee members’ names to get their email addresses and phone numbers.

This is a truly urgent and important request for you to make and for the Senate Finance Committee to grant. We must keep ourselves from being thrown under the bus.

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