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Will NM claim its Colorado River water?

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I have followed with interest the recent items concerning the future of New Mexico’s options under the Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act of 2004. There are major issues worthy of full debate in deciding what New Mexico will do – or not do – with the allocation of up to 14,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water to which New Mexico is entitled in the Gila River, and what to do with the $80 million or more allocated to New Mexico in the act.

There are good and logical arguments on all sides of the issue. But at bottom, a dominant issue is whether Gov. Susana Martinez will mark her place in the history books as the first governor to voluntarily relinquish New Mexico water to a downstream state. The provisions of the act give New Mexico its last chance to claim that water.

The Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act was negotiated with Arizona interests in 2002-2003. Arizona was not interested in sharing its anticipated AWSA windfall of federal water funding with New Mexico – and it was interested in laying to rest New Mexico’s longstanding right to additional Gila River water. But, with the firm support of Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, New Mexico stood athwart Arizona’s AWSA plans. After much back-and-forth on the issue, New Mexico and Arizona struck the deal that allowed this state access to some portion of its long-allocated water and some funding to help develop it.

Charged by both state and federal law with making the determination on how New Mexico’s portion would be carried out, ISC staff initiated a comprehensive process to gather all the pertinent hydrologic and environmental data in advance of any consideration of what should be done.

The objective was to prepare a body of knowledge about the hydrology and ecology of the area with the participation of both water users and environmental interests. The subsequent consideration on projects would then proceed on the basis of a mutually recognized fact set prepared in advance.

I know first-hand that this was the plan because I directed it from my position as director of policy for Gov. Bill Richardson. I had, I might add, the full cooperation and buy-in of the ISC staff. I had the rosy vision of conducting the first water project study in the arid West in which the science came first, consideration of proposals second.

We reached out to the water community in southwestern New Mexico. They were initially skeptical of the process.

The reaction of the environmental community was swift – Conservation Voters of New Mexico blocked funding for the research and issued a press release disclosing how they had stopped the dam-building ISC in its tracks. In fact, what was stopped was one of the most ambitious physical and environmental studies of a river system ever proposed in New Mexico.

Needless to say, this ended any hope of mutual fact-finding between environmental and water user interests. If the decision-making process is lagging, it can be ascribed in no small part to the derailing of this comprehensive study initiative more than 10 years ago.

Let me make clear again that it is not my intent here to advocate for or against any project. I do, however, have a deep and abiding concern at the thought of New Mexico voluntarily ceding scarce water to a downstream state, and that the record be straight on how we came to be where we are today.

There is another major point that needs to be understood by those undecided on how the state should proceed.

That is the Consumptive Use and Forbearance Agreement. Perhaps the most environmentally significant provision of the AWSA, it mandates month-by-month limitations on how much water New Mexico must allow to go downstream before it could take additional amounts from the Gila. Under restrictions of the agreement, only water off the tops of robust flows could be tapped.

Arizona insisted on the limits to ensure downstream water users rights would be met. Because that water must pass through New Mexico, those downstream rights become environmental flow in the Gila in New Mexico as well.

The deadlines are approaching. Much of the rhetoric has been aimed more at emotion than understanding. But, the cold fact of New Mexico being on the verge of possibly making an irrevocable gift of Colorado River water to Arizona is simple to understand.

Bill Hume is a former Albuquerque Journal editorial page editor.

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