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Water planning package stalls in Senate

State Engineer John D’Antonio, with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham when she announced his appointment in February, told a Senate committee last week that he is committed to working on water planning in New Mexico this year. A group of water experts has been pushing legislation, now stalled, to improve planning to address the state’s water problems. ( Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – The chances for passage this year of legislation to jump-start serious water planning in New Mexico, including by pumping millions of dollars into the effort, evaporated last week when a Senate committee tabled a key bill.

State Engineer John D’Antonio expressed some reservations about the measure, Senate Bill 560, but he committed to working on the issue of water planning in the Legislature’s interim period before it meets again in 2020.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez

“I will be back,” Sen. Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez, D-Albuquerque, sponsor of SB 560, vowed after a brief discussion of her bill at a Thursday meeting of the Senate Conservation Committee.

A group of water experts has been pushing a legislative package that includes SB 560 and two other bills intended to address a number of water problems, including limits on New Mexico’s water supply, legal obligations to deliver water downstream to Texas and water uses and authorizations that exceed supply.

The effort is a response to a House memorial, or resolution, passed in 2017 that requested that the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission convene a task force to address water issues. That never happened, but volunteer water planners took on the job as the House Memorial 1 Working Group and the proposed bills resulted. The group includes regional water planners and a representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Bob Wessely of Las Vegas, N.M., part of the working group, told the Conservation Committee that Sedillo-Lopez’s bill is an effort to overhaul “a regional water planning process that has been particularly bad in the last administration (of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez) and hasn’t been all that good before that.”

A working group summary says the bill addresses problems with water planning that hasn’t been based on reliable data and scientific hydrology; hasn’t addressed groundwater pumping limits to preserve future supplies, defined when aquifers may be depleted or how to keep Rio Grande water uses within legal limits; and appears to be less about solutions than about just producing “documents entitled ‘water plan.’ ”

The bill sets out ground rules for planning by the Interstate Stream Commission that is “fact and science based” in regions determined by hydrology instead of arbitrary political boundaries, Wessely said. It would direct the ISC to evaluate recommendations from the regions, approve or reject them and support implementation of those that are approved.

“I’ve been working with water planning for, now, close to a quarter-century, and I think this is an opportunity to get us to making planning useful so as to solve the real, on-the-ground water problems we’re facing as a state – serious problems, particularly in light of warming temperatures reducing the availability of water,” Wessely said.

The bill would have appropriated $10 million for water planning through 2024. Theresa Cardenas of the Union of Concerned Scientists said that New Mexico has ignored water planning for years and that water agencies such as the ISC and the Office of the State Engineer have been underfunded.

Sedillo-Lopez acknowledged that her bill may be addressing a “last administration problem.” She said D’Antonio, recently appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to return to the state engineer’s post, which he held from 2003 through 2011, wants a chance for his office to work on the issues the bill tried to address.

“I think it needs some time for us to work in the interim and put sound policy together,” D’Antonio told the committee. “I know the governor is interested in putting a 50-year water plan together for the entire state.”

He said he agreed that water planning has been underfunded but that he firmly believes planning “needs to come up from the regions and coalesced into a state plan that makes sense from the ground up,” while SB 560 is “very prescriptive.” The bill also might change ISC powers to conflict with those of the state engineer, he said.

“We’ve made that commitment to work in the interim to improve water planning within the state,” D’Antonio said.

Other legislation in the water package includes:

• House Bill 187, which would appropriate $1.5 million to the Utton Transboundary Resources Center at the University of New Mexico to hire experts and create a panel to review and make recommendations on state water law in a number of areas, including adjudication of water rights and protecting supplies for the future. This bill’s progress also appears to have stalled.

• Senate Bill 558, which would direct the ISC and the state engineer to undertake a number of measures to ensure compliance with the interstate Rio Grande Compact – currently the subject of a legal fight between New Mexico and Texas before the U.S. Supreme Court – in delivering water to Elephant Butte Reservoir in southern New Mexico. The bill, likewise apparently stalled, would appropriate $4 million for work through 2023.

A related measure, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, is close to passage. Currently, the governor appoints all members of the Interstate Stream Commission. Wirth’s Senate Bill 5 would give the governor and the Legislature four appointments each, divided among political parties. Wirth has said the change would broaden the makeup of the commission and prevent dramatic swings in viewpoint depending on the philosophy of the governor.

As of late last week, Wirth’s bill had passed the Senate and made its way through one House committee. If it gets through one more committee, the bill will go to a House floor for vote that could send it to the governor.

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