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State making new plan for water

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Ten years after New Mexico officials last took a stab at developing a state water plan, they are reviving their effort to calculate the gaps between New Mexico’s finite water supplies and the needs of a growing population. The goal, officials say, is a tool to help prioritize state projects and policies to deal with the gaps.

But criticisms have plagued the project from the outset, including the charge that the state’s top-down approach is bypassing the voices of local water users. Critics also claim a failure to consider the effects of climate change on the state’s water supplies will undercut the validity of the results.

Officials acknowledge that, despite a state law requiring an inventory of water supply and demand, previous efforts came up short. “We concluded we were not doing meaningful planning,” said Mark Sanchez, head of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission’s water planning subcommittee.

The new effort is being launched with $800,000 in state funding and a projection by state officials that, if they get another $700,000 next year, they can complete 16 regional water plans and a state plan summing up the findings within two years. The plans will be used to help prioritize spending on state water projects.

The state launched a similar planning process more than a decade ago, noting that in New Mexico, “water demand exceeds supply.” But efforts to complete the project faltered.

Members of the state’s water community say the need for such an effort is clear. “It’s important that when we have supply that won’t meet unlimited demand, that we have a plan,” said Norm Gaume, a retired water manager who has worked for both state and local governments in New Mexico.

Once completed, the regional and state plans will be used to prioritize state funding for projects aimed at closing the supply-demand gaps, said State Engineer Scott Verhines, the state’s top water official.

But the planning process, still in its early stages, has revived a longstanding conflict between community leaders and state government. At issue is who will control the numbers. In past regional water planning, local communities developed their own supply and demand projections. This time around, the state says it will calculate the numbers for each of the state’s 16 regions.

“They’re just going to turn this into a top-down, state-run program,” said Charlie Nylander of Santa Fe, chairman of the Jemez y Sangre Regional Water Planning Council.

State officials say their approach is needed to create a common foundation for understanding our water problems. The last effort to write a state water plan was hampered by the fact that each region used its own approach to calculating water supply and demand, making apples-to-apples comparisons impossible, said Estevan López, head of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. “All of the regions kind of did things their own way,” López said.

In 2003, the Legislature mandated a state water plan aggregating all the data from the regional plans into one document that would “include an inventory of the quantity and quality of the state’s water resources, population projections and other water resource demands under a range of conditions.”

But when state officials tried to integrate the regional plans into a single report, they were hamstrung by differing methodologies used in the 16 regions, according to an analysis by the Utton Center, a water policy research group at the University of New Mexico School of Law.

An analysis of the 16 regional plans done by a state consultant found that while the state’s water supplies were taxed to the limit by current uses, all of the regions expected their population and water needs to grow. The most common option cited in the regional plans was moving water from agriculture to other uses. But taken as a whole, the regional water plans also called for agricultural use in New Mexico to grow.

State officials this time around plan to do all the water supply and demand calculations themselves, handing that data over to local committees in each of the 16 regions.

That undercuts the value of planning at the regional level, complained Steve Hernandez, a Las Cruces water attorney and pecan grower who worked on the Lower Rio Grande Regional Water Plan in the 1990s. Meetings in which area water users developed their own supply and demand projections were a critical part of the planning process, Hernandez wrote in a letter to the state.

State officials say they are willing to listen to community input on the water numbers this time around, but the final calculations of how much water each region has and how much it will need in the future will be made by state officials in Santa Fe, not by regional water planners. Such an approach is crucial, state officials say, for the development of a “common technical platform” that will allow all 16 regional supply and demand analyses to be combined into a single State Water Plan.

“The state has now taken over the role of dictating supply and demand numbers for each region,” Hernandez complained.

In calculating their supply and demand projections, the state will not consider the impact of climate change, López said. A new study published last week by federal scientists projected that Rio Grande water supplies could drop by a third as a result of higher temperatures as global greenhouse gases rise. But López said no effort would be made to incorporate any similar analysis into the state water planning process. “I don’t anticipate we’re going to do climate change projections,” López said. López said the state simply lacks the funding needed to do the technical analysis required. “We don’t have the resources right now to deal with climate change,” he said.

Elaine Hebard, one of the leaders of past middle Rio Grande water planning efforts, said failing to incorporate climate change into state water planning is to ignore a critical and important reality. “We should at least say, ‘It’s real, it’s here, let’s deal with it,’ ” Hebard said in an interview.

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