Regional water planning shortchanged in state budget, advocates say
By Elizabeth Miller, New Mexico In Depth
There’s a tale of two cities unfolding in eastern New Mexico: Clovis and Portales both rely on a single source of potable water, the Ogallala Aquifer. That aquifer is finite and rapidly depleting. Five years ago, New Mexico Tech offered both communities aquifer mapping research to predict how long their reserves might last. That research guided Clovis to shutting off 51 irrigation wells and saving 4 billion gallons of water. Portales didn’t choose to use it. As of June, the town was running short of water.
“I know families who have a trickle of water coming out of a showerhead,” Ladona Clayton, executive director of the Ogallala Land and Water Conservancy, said at a November Water and Natural Resource Committee meeting. “People ask, ‘What do we do? Do we sell our homes? Do we think about moving from a community we’ve loved all our lives?’ This is what happens when water scarcity rears its head.”
The two towns demonstrate the need for planning based on solid research. And Portales has since convened a water advisory group to begin planning for the future.
Without additional help from state agencies and institutions to examine groundwater reserves and support other planning efforts, Clayton cautioned, more communities could run dry.
Lawmakers embraced regional planning
The regional water planning process envisioned in the 2023 law is meant to support communities statewide in preparing for a future with less water—and many long-time water advocates and managers now see these plans as the center of the action for water planning in the state.
Next year’s budget as outlined in the current version of House Bill 2 still underfunds water “dramatically,” according to Norm Gaume, president of the Water Advocates for New Mexico and the Middle Rio Grande and a Water Ambassador.
“Some legislators know what water requires, and water can’t wait,” said Gaume, who spent a career in water resources engineering specializing in water management and planning. “But the governor and the Legislature as a body—they don’t get it.”
Meanwhile, “…the climate projections are bleak,” Hannah Riseley-White, director of the Interstate Stream Commission, said at a November Water and Natural Resource Committee meeting updating lawmakers on the regional water planning effort. Those projections suggest New Mexico’s water supplies could decrease by a quarter in coming decades. “If we are indeed looking at 25% less flow to our streams and aquifers, this discussion is essential.”
State-level water plans, including the governor’s recently unveiled 50-year water action plan, provide rough frameworks. Regional plans are intended to handle the details and logistics like secondary water supplies, within certain scientific and legal parameters.
Gaume is campaigning for getting regions organized now so they can start planning even while a state research- and data-gathering process is happening. Otherwise, this process could take until the early 2030s to complete. But the Legislature would need to provide resources for those tasks. And he’s concerned the Interstate Stream Commission still lacks the staff and resources to implement the Water Security Planning Act and deal with a pending water crisis.
Three planning staff members at the Interstate Stream Commission will oversee this work. That’s up from just a single person, but fewer than other states undertaking similar efforts, according to Riseley-White. The office of the State Engineer, which includes the Commission, has lost 70 positions since the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson, Gaume said at the November meeting. (Richardson left office at the end of 2010.)
“So many great state employees know what needs to be done and they want to do it, but the state doesn’t even give them the resources to be productive,” Gaume said. For example: “If they want to find out a water right in Roswell, they have to drive to Roswell.”
Phil King, a senior advisor for the Interstate Stream Commission and Office of the State Engineer, and a co-author of the scientific analysis that informed the state’s 50-year water plan, said during a January workshop that conservation through technology and infrastructure falls far short of closing the gap between demand and the projected drop in supply.
Given that the current water law prioritizes oldest uses, he said, planning offers the best hope of averting a situation where shortages see the state engineer shutting off water for “everybody that started using water after 1970, then 1960, then 1950—that’s just surgery with a chainsaw.”
The governor’s long-awaited 50-year water action plan outlines big-picture actions regions can undertake, and offers “return on investment” through activities like public outreach campaigns that could decrease water consumption by 10%. Lujan Grisham has also been pressing lawmakers for $500 million to invest in the “strategic water supply,” which entails exploring what she referred to as an “ocean” of brackish water under the state and its potential for industrial use.
Meanwhile, critical pieces of the regional water planning efforts, including those placed into statute by lawmakers, await sufficient financial support: So far, according to a planprepared in September by the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources on implementing the Water Data Act, which passed in 2019 to make water data more accessible for water managers and the public, funding covers just 25% of the long-term recurring costs agencies face to implement that act.
The shortfalls started with the budget requests of state agencies, typically made in September, said Stacy Timmons, associate director of hydrology programs at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.
Those agencies—the Environment Department; Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department; and Office of the State Engineer—did not include a specific funding request to implement the Water Data Act, except one full-time employee for the Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department (of two likely needed), and another $500,000 for the Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.
“If they don’t put a placeholder in, they’re probably not going to get anything,” Timmons said.
But only some of that half-million has been allocated so far. It’s possible lawmakers will amend House Bill 2 as it advances to provide the needed funds, or allocate it through their own discretionary spending. What these state agencies need is recurring, consistent funding to staff up for specialty skill sets, and in that light, Timmons said, “It’s still a big hill to climb.”
Lawmakers this year are instead doling out funds to projects that chip away, piecemeal, at one cornerstone of the governor’s new 50-year water plan: conservation. That plan sets a goal of decreasing water loss from public drinking water infrastructure by 25% by 2040.
“We’ve got to plug up our old, antiquated infrastructure, because guess what? It leaks,” Lujan Grisham said at a press conference in the Roundhouse to unveil the plan. “It leaks everywhere. It’s leaking somewhere right now in this building, and I know that sounds ludicrous, but it’s not. Antiquated bathrooms, toilets, sinks, pipes, irrigation, acequias that aren’t dug out and maintained—all of it creates huge loss that we can’t afford.”
Lawmakers are making a range of efforts this session to help communities deal with water infrastructure and supply issues, including one bill that would authorize $112 million dollars worth of needs through the state’s water project fund.
And dire needs of some communities are on the radar of the governor, who noted at a press conference in late January the need to fund a pipeline from the Ute Reservoir—which will cost the state at least another $63 million—to Portales, though the town will likely need water before the pipeline reaches it.
What ends up in the state general spending plan budget or its capital improvement budget won’t be clear until lawmakers conclude the budgeting process, which is underway. The legislative session ends on next Thursday.
ABOUT ELIZABETH MILLER, NEW MEXICO IN DEPTH
Elizabeth Miller is an independent journalist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who writes about energy and the environment, the outdoors, and a range of public policy issues. Contact her at: email@example.com