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Prioritizing dam safety and repairs

Watersheds, rivers, acequias and community ditches are all vital parts of our water systems, but dams are perhaps the most important pieces of water infrastructure.

The critical nature of dams does not involve just water delivery so much as water storage.

In a best-case scenario, dams hold spring runoff in lakes and reservoirs for delivery in drier summer months. Dams are a crucial component of the complex system by which the state administers water to users and meets its delivery obligations to other states.

Lakes and reservoirs also provide recreational value through camping, boating and fishing.

In a worst-case scenario, some of New Mexico’s dams are a potential nightmare. When a levee or dam fails, thousands of gallons of water can flood the areas below it, threatening property, livestock and human life.

In rural areas, the primary consequence is that the water contained by the dam is no longer available. As our cities and suburbs have crept into what once was agricultural land, the potential for loss of life from a dam failure has grown.

It is an easy problem to overlook: most dams appear to be sturdy enough. Upon closer inspection though, many of our dams are old and in desperate need of upkeep.

In fact, the Office of the State Engineer maintains a list of dams in New Mexico, classifying the hazard potential and condition of each locally, privately and state-owned dam. The shocking thing is that 179 dams in the state are in poor condition, with another five listed as unsatisfactory.

Scarier still is that two of those five carry a high hazard potential, meaning that dam failure or misoperation will “probably cause loss of human life.”

Many dams classified as being in poor condition also carry a high hazard potential.

To be fair, most of the dams on the state engineer’s list are relatively small and in rural areas, whereas many of the larger dams are maintained by federal agencies. Also, a number of the “poor” designations are for dams without adequate design information; they could be fine, but we just don’t know.

There is, however, some good news: New Mexico is in an excellent position to address these concerns. Recent estimates indicate the state expects almost $800 million in new money this year.

State agencies and advocates from every corner of state government are asking for budget increases. I have no doubt most of those requests are valid.

Still, if we are serious about protecting several of our state’s most vital resources — water, land and people — the state must further commit to funding dam restoration and repair. Some work has already been done on dams across the state, so the problem has not been ignored so much as under-prioritized.

While I believe that the total cost of addressing this issue is significantly more, I plan to introduce a bill in the 2020 legislative session to appropriate $100 million for dam repair and renovation. Our water and our safety are too precious for us to ignore any longer.

(State Sen. Pete Campos is a Democrat representing District 8, which encompasses portions of Colfax, Guadalupe, Harding, Mora, Quay, San Miguel and Taos counties. He resides in Las Vegas, N.M.)