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Planning for New Mexico’s water future

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Every drop of water matters in a dry state such as New Mexico. But state efforts to create a 50-year water plan have been complicated by a tight budget, limited staff and persistent drought.

In January, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Office of the State Engineer requested that the Legislature allocate $750,000 to kick-start the plan.

Lujan Grisham had campaigned on the promise of a 50-year water plan that would engage communities and identify emerging water challenges.

“Smart water management and conservation must become a way of life in New Mexico,” says an October 2018 plan outlining Lujan Grisham’s positions on water issues.

The Legislature denied the funding request in the 2020 regular session.

The OSE did receive the go-ahead to hire two additional people for water planning. But those plans were scrapped this summer as state agencies made budget cuts amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Now the water planning program is operating with one staffer and a $350,000 budget for the 2021 fiscal year.

“We’re really trying to put more work on the ground today with far fewer people than we’ve ever had,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the Interstate Stream Commission. “We’ve got people in the field now because of drought, and it’s difficult for them to be in the office doing other things as part of our regular work. We’re basically moving pieces around to deal with a crisis situation in a triage mode, and that applies to water planning also.”

The State Water Plan Act, passed in 2003, mandates that the Office of the State Engineer and the ISC create a comprehensive water plan. Agencies must review the plan at least every five years. Requirements include an inventory of water quality and quantity, a drought management plan, regional water plans, and information about water infrastructure projects and water rights settlements.

The 2018 state water plan is a massive document. More than 200 pages detail water law, management policies and technical reports.

A 50-year plan will likely look different. Research and reports are still necessary, but the-goal is a more interactive host of websites, social media outreach and webinars to answer questions about water in the Land of Enchantment.

“It’s not just a document that sits on somebody’s desk. That’s not the future,” Schmidt-Petersen said. “We want to engage those local stakeholders all across New Mexico who know their local water issues really, really well.”

The water planning program can’t afford expensive, time-consuming studies. So the ISC is laying a foundation by supporting existing research projects.

One of those building blocks is the state Water Data Initiative, spurred by a 2019 state law to standardize water data and make it easily accessible.

Another effort is the $1 million Rio Grande Basin Study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. That study will predict future water supply and demand from the Colorado-New Mexico state line to Elephant Butte Reservoir.

Key to a long-term plan is acknowledging that future water supplies may be unreliable in the face of climate change, said David Gutzler, a climate scientist and professor in the University of New Mexico’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department.

“This is a really bad drought year, but what climate change across southwest North America does is tip the scales toward more frequent and more intense droughts,” he said.

Gutzler’s research and statewide weather data show that temperatures in New Mexico have risen rapidly in the past 50 years. Precipitation trends vary, but snowpack levels are declining across the West.

For decades, state water managers have predicted how much water would be in streams in the spring and summer simply by measuring snowpack in the higher elevations. But those predictions become less accurate as more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow.

Spring runoff increasingly happens earlier in the year, and snow evaporates quickly, as was the case this spring.

Climate change is just one stressor for New Mexico’s water supply. Groundwater supplies are dwindling in many regions. Agriculture, growing urban areas, and wildlife all need water. The state’s water plan faces questions about how to meet all those demands.

“As a society, we’ll need to think about how we’re going to cope with either intermittent or long-term water shortages in a way that minimizes conflict,” Gutzler said. “We have to think about how to take rules and regulations and laws that were developed when there were many fewer people and a different climate, and adapt those to the hydrologic reality in the 21st century. But that’s not a science problem. That’s a values and social science problem.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.


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