From the President’s Desk: “The Middle Rio Grande Water Governance Forecast is for Accelerating Progress in 2024!”

Part II – Co-Creation of a Sustainable Water Future for the Middle Rio Grande

Introduction to Part II 

The past two years have set the stage for accelerated progress in managing New Mexico’s water resources for much greater resilience, as described in Part I, a 2023 summary report. Part II is about 2024. 

Two years of action have been productive. Under State Engineer Mike Hamman’s adept leadership since January 2022, New Mexico created and began implementing pivotal strategies recommended by consensus, most were unanimous, of the 2022 Water Policy and Infrastructure Task Force. Progress in 2023 demonstrates a crucial shift in New Mexico’s approach to water governance, moving from historical neglect to a proactive path focused on resilience and sustainability. More leaders know New Mexico faces a profound water problem and are taking action. Fewer are ignoring or denying it. 

Water Advocates 2024 Action Plan

Generous board member and public donations to the Water Advocates in November and December and our intensive planning work last fall made it possible for the Water Advocates to prepare the illustration below. It shows creation of a Middle Rio Grande Water Planning Entity and a substantial amount of preliminary work to set the stage for the Entity to be immediately productive in 2026 after its collaborative creation in 2025. 

Leaders of several state and local government water agencies and institutions have expressed support recently for the technical plan to implement the 2023 Water Security Planning Act in the Middle Rio Grande. The illustrated parallel approach, presuming substantive progress is made starting NOW could result in completion of the Middle Rio Grande regional plan before the next decade. A sequential approach that waits until 1) the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission has completed rules for implementation of the statewide program, and 2) doesn’t complete technical mandatory work and analyses in parallel throughout 2024 and 2025 would not allow completion of the Middle Rio Grande plan until 2033, at the earliest. 

Motivation for Change

The Middle Rio Grande requires effective changes now to the status quo management of the Middle Rio Grande’s water resources. Our state officials have already dealt with a Texas legal motion and brief to expand the US Supreme Court litigation to include the Middle Rio Grande. The Court said no. Texas will certainly sue to enforce the plain terms of the Rio Grande Compact requirements that define the Middle Rio Grande’s share if we violate them. 

If we don’t act now, and if the State Engineer continues to not regulate Middle Rio Grande excess water uses and allows New Mexico to violate the explicit compact water delivery requirements, the US Supreme Court will step in. This would be a gross failure of water management because overuse in the Middle Rio Grande deprives New Mexicans who live downstream of Elephant Butte Dam of their full 57% share of the water that the interstate and federal compact, a binding water sharing agreement, requires New Mexico to deliver through the Middle Rio Grande. A violation will show New Mexico can’t solve its own intrastate water allocation problem.

Continuing unsustainable water depletions in the Middle Rio Grande hurts the region. Every year that the Middle Valley depletes more groundwater than is sustainable, and depletes the flow of the Rio Grande more than our legal share, also eliminates a slice of future Middle Rio Grande water sustainability. 

“If your in hole you can’t get out of, first stop digging.”

Emergency Reactions Versus Planned Actions

The Middle Rio Grande is depleting more of its legal share of the Rio Grande, directly, and through pumping groundwater from aquifers adjacent to the Rio Grande. The trend is bad. Inaction or counterproductive actions by Middle Rio Grande water purveyors and our federal and state governments has allowed Middle Rio Grande unsustainable uses of the river and our aquifer system to threaten current compliance. Governments must immediately react to prevent the compact violation.

The State Engineer has two choices. He can continue to rely on facts and persuasion, which is not working, or he can regulate. Regulation means a priority administration. The New Mexico Supreme Court in 2012 upheld State Engineer rules promulgated in 2004, giving the State Engineer the clear authority to make a priority call based on the best information available to the State Engineer. Pueblo sovereign water uses are exempt by law. The water rights that will remain in priority are the oldest, for irrigation. Rights to water developed later will be out of priority. 

Reaction implemented for the 2024 snowmelt runoff season to prevent another round of highly demanding and distracting US Supreme Court litigation lasting a decade or more is essential. The reaction can’t be a singular event. It must continue and undoubtedly will bring on much litigation by the curtailed less senior water users, which include the Middle Rio Grande’s cities and the water for much of New Mexico’s economy.

Action taken for water sustainability is available to the Middle Valley through the illustrated plan that would implement the 2023 Water Security Planning Act in the Middle Rio Grande. Creating an agreed set of sustainable actions is superior to always reacting. However we must accept that the current compact compliance status requires the State Engineer’s emergency reaction in 2024.

Collaborative creation of a plan for the Middle Rio Grande’s water, economic, cultural, and environmental survival will require a concentrated effort beginning now to complete our plan this decade, so the plan can be implemented over the next.

Middle Rio Grande self-organization to refine, share, and implement the illustrated vision will shave many years off a more passive, don’t-act-until-the ISC-completes-its-rules-and-guidelines approach. Future generations of New Mexicans depend on all of us to recognize and Do our Parts, because Agua es Vida! Each year we allow the status quo of unsustainable water uses to continue diminishes the Middle Rio Grande’s future.

Two Essential Ingredients

The Middle Rio Grande requires two ingredients to accelerate the progress of 2022 and 2023 and bring that acceleration to our region, our home. One is a Middle Rio Grande initiative to self-organize to refine, share, and implement the illustrated vision. The other is money. 

Self-organization is building but it requires governmental support and funding. Bernalillo County appropriated $200,000 for expenditure before June to initiate implementation of the 2023 Water Security Planning Act in the Middle Rio Grande. That funding could provide the resources required to complete “Phase 0” of the illustrated plan by then and to begin a program of public education and outreach regarding the facts of our water governance situation.

The volunteer NM Legislature’s disregard for New Mexico’s Water

Why its so important Bernalillo County appropriated $200,000 of one-time funds in the Middle Rio Grande.   It’s because the 2023 Legislature, with unprecedented revenue surpluses available in 2023 to appropriate, passed the landmark 2023 Water Security Planning Act but failed to authorize the staff or provide the budget required for timely Interstate Stream Commission and regional implementation.

This custom and tradition of New Mexico’s Legislature is called out by the 2022 New Mexico Water Policy and Infrastructure Task Force in recommendation 2.7. Nonetheless, the legislature continued the custom and tradition in 2023. 

That is a custom and tradition of the State of New Mexico, as water sovereign, must leave behind. The NM Legislature must put its money where its mouth is.  The list of critically-important-to-New-Mexico’s-future laws passed by the Legislature, such as the 2019 Water Data Act, but very poorly funded given their existential importance, is lengthy. 

It’s as if one branch of the sovereign does not understand Water is Life! Everyone must do their part! Especially the sovereign, all three branches.

Although the Governor’s proposed budget for the 2024 Legislature’s consideration includes 27 of the 31 new positions requested by the Office of the State Engineer/Interstate Stream commission and other long-overdue increases, it contains nothing to support work within New Mexico’s water planning regions. Water planning regions are the statutory heart of future New Mexico planning. Water planning pursuant to this act doesn’t happen without regional self-organization, per the new law. 

Dr. Ladona Clayton, Executive Director of the Ogallala Land and Water Conservancy, and I, worked together to develop our joint recommendations that we presented to the Legislature’s Water and Natural Resources Committee on November 7, 2023. She and I are both NM Water Ambassadors, the brand given by the State Engineer who convened and chaired the Water Task Force to its members. Our panel included ISC Director Hannah Riseley-White and ISC Planning Program Manager Andrew Erdmann. 

Dr. Clayton and I fear the Legislature will continue to neglect the immediate needs of regions that are in crisis and have a critical need for collaborative solutions. She and I also would like to see immediate changes by the State Engineer to use his discretionary regulatory authority to stop accepting permit applications supplemental wells to drain the Ogallala Aquifer completely dry, immediately threatening the survival of Portales and Eastern New Mexico University. They literally ran dry this summer or were drastically short, with dribbling showers and faucets.

The Middle Rio Grande problem is not as “in your face,” and, therefore not a matter of front-of-mind public concern, but that may only be in Albuquerque.

In the Middle Rio Grande, the State Engineer policies of the last century governing transfer of surface water rights to wells that pump a reliably uninterrupted supply of wet water, must stop. These policies remain unchanged, unlimited by nature, and unsuitable for a sustainable water future despite the fact they don’t protect either the river or the aquifer. These transfers are damaging and further endangering the Middle Rio Grande’s future.

Invitation to Learn More and Engage

The Water Advocates for New Mexico and the Middle Rio Grande invite all to learn more and engage. Participate in our monthly workshops, respond to our calls to action, and share this news with friends, family, and colleagues today.


  1. Betsy Diaz on January 10, 2024 at 11:37 am

    I have been discussing this with people that I meet. I am deeply concerned that with much money available to the 2024 legislature via the financial session that will soon begin, I have seen a multitude of ideas for funding things that are important by & large, but not as essential to life as water. NM is fortunate in escaping the some of the emphasis on water’s dire relationship to life in other parts of the US, but its aridification effects are urgently severe, especially in rural areas of the state. It appears in mass media that neither the Governor or the NM legislature is prioritizing water planning & management in ways that can make NM water sustainable. it appears that mostly water advocates understand that “!Sin aqua hay Nada!”. That means no life, no drinking water, no agriculture, no food, no schools, no businesses, no hospitals, et cetera. This head in the sand approach is fatal. I am writing sample letters for my church to write to legislators and told IPL I would share those. Why are we not learning from watching the lack of water in Gaza. The astute work of Dr. Clayton in Clovis proves that communities can successfully be led (as the ancient cultures knew) in working for the common good using cutting edge science and knowledgeable healthy personal relationships with nature to rebalance cycles of all life and water (Cajete, 2,000).

  2. Denise Fort on January 10, 2024 at 4:33 pm

    Great recommendations. Let’s ensure that the “middle Rio Grande” includes people along the river down to Elephant Butte. That stretch of the river is ecologically significant yet poorly understood. And Norm, how far north will the middle extend?

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