State Water Actions Urgently Required

Climate change demands two sets of actions.

Much of the excellent, informative presentations to the Water and Natural Resources Committee today have focused on the first: mitigation or reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

We must also adapt to increased temperature and reduced water supplies. The written public comment emailed to you requests that you as elected leaders take five actions to increase New Mexico water supply resilience.

Please prioritize the changes we must make to face our water problems, guided by hydrologic reality and the need for equitable solutions

In addition to this oral comment to the Legislatures’ Water and Natural Resources Committee November 9 meeting, the MRG Water Advocates sent this open letter to the committee members.  

It identified two urgent water supply matters.  One is a near-term crisis:  a near-term interstate Compact delivery violation that involves upstream New Mexicans shorting downstream New Mexicans and others.  The second is of utmost future importance.   New Mexico must do better through serious work among all relevant agencies to transition to a resilient water supply future under the realities of climate change reductions in our surface water supplies.  Unless New Mexico pivots to face this problem rather than ignore it, we will suffer a slow-moving train wreck.  We can and must do much better!   

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.

Prevent the pending Rio Grande Compact violation.  Middle Rio Grande water operations this year have pushed the cumulative water debt to a very risky level—between 80,000 and 100,000 acre-feet arrears as the state engineer and the ISC director recently have both reported publicly.  Without water rationing in the Middle Rio Grande, the State of New Mexico may fail in 2021 to deliver sufficient water through the Middle Rio Grande to users below Elephant Butte Dam to avoid an explicit violation of the compact, which is both federal and shared state law.

The last 10 years’ trend is consistent under delivery. The 2020 annual arrears will exceed 2019’s. Without water rationing, total depletions within the Middle Rio Grande in 2021 could cause the delivery arrears to exceed 200,000 acre-feet, the maximum allowed by law. 

graphic credit MRGCD

It also is a violation of equity within New Mexico.  New Mexicans are entitled to 57% of the Rio Grande’s waters downstream of Elephant Butte.  Most of the impact of Middle Rio Grande under delivery falls legally on the New Mexico portion of the Lower Rio Grande.

The Legislature clarified the State Engineer’s statutory authority and duty to administer water in a 2003 law.   State Engineer John D’Antonio in 2004 issued General Rules for water administration.  The NM Supreme Court upheld them in 2012.  

These rules emphasize negotiated agreed alternative solutions.  Reaching such agreements requires state resources and productive leadership.  Priority administration is a poor alternative, but it’s the only statutory tool.  Instead, the rule’s goal is an agreed sharing of shortages. 

The Legislature should require and fund a process of meaningful engagement of water rights owners and the public to develop a system of alternative administration within the Middle Rio Grande Basin that will comply with the state’s water delivery obligations to the Lower Rio Grande.

 Water Planning.  David Gutzler, one of New Mexico’s internationally renowned climate change scientists, testified for an hour at the introductory meeting of the House Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee on January 17, 2019.  He said, 

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.

Sooner is better than later.

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

Dr. Gutzler and many others including the Middle Rio Grande Water Advocates and this author provided general and specific public comment that the 2018 State Water Plan–prepared in the last months of the Martinez administration and distributed to the ISC hours before they approved it, was not what New Mexico needs nor state law requires.    ISC responded that such comments were “out-of-scope.”  

The ISC’s currently semi-public draft proposal to quickly produce a 50-year state water plan leaves many essential topics unaddressed.  New Mexico has no plan for water supply resilience nor a path to produce such a plan.  ISC’s current state water planning effort should be redirected toward statutory requirements and the attached suggested guidance.

Recommendations:  The MRG Water Advocates recommend the Legislature’s Water and Natural Resources Committee members take action as follows:

  1. Support Rep. Melanie Stansbury in her work to implement the transformative change New Mexico requires for water supply resilience.  Sign the first significant steps into law in 2021.
  2. Direct that water use within the Middle Rio Grande be limited in 2021 and 2022 as necessary to comply with the Rio Grande Compact with the necessary limitations shared equitably by groundwater and surface water users.   
  3. Direct that government to government consultation be conducted between the State of New Mexico and the pueblos and tribes along the Rio Grande whose water rights remain undetermined.  The consultation shall focus on the meaning of Article XVI of the Rio Grande Compact, “Nothing in this Compact shall be construed … as impairing the rights of the Indian Tribes.”   
  4. Fund the public preparation of a system of alternative administration of water rights in the Middle Rio Grande that would be acceptable to the state for  its compliance with its Rio Grande Compact water delivery obligations to the Lower Rio Grande.  
  5. Mandate water resource planning intended to improve water supply resilience in the specific river basins and aquifer systems of New Mexico.  In some areas, scientific investigations and data collection must be the first water resilience planning step.
Water Deliveries Through the Middle Rio Grande Have Complied with the Compact since 1969. The First Significant Cumulative Debit Since 1990 Was Incurred in 2019. The Trend is Concerning.