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Editorial: It’s 2021; NM can’t afford more dams that don’t hold water

The late Sen. Carlos Cisneros of Questa was one of the Legislature’s experts on the challenges of public works projects in New Mexico. And while he worked for years to improve a process too often plagued by piecemeal funding, inadequate planning and flawed execution, he was the first to admit it was a work in progress.

And, to illustrate that, the long-serving Democrat who died unexpectedly in 2019 often told the story of the $7 million Cabresto Lake Dam upgrade in northern New Mexico – a project that wasn’t delivered on time, was over budget and, as a Legislative Finance Committee report in December 2014 pointed out, did not reflect effective planning, management or oversight.

But the kicker, which Cisneros would deliver after a pause to make sure his audience was paying attention: After all that, the dam still didn’t hold water. That’s because the earthen structure was built on a porous landslide and ultimately would require expensive upgrades, including liners to keep the water from essentially seeping out from under the dam.

Yes, there has been progress in the system, including this year finally getting transparency on who sponsored what project, but obviously not enough.

New Mexico continues to struggle with infrastructure projects, as spelled out in a new LFC report that focused on water projects. For example, the Village of Maxwell south of Raton received $1 million in state capital outlay money to drill two new water wells in 2014. One well tapped a deep aquifer for future use. A second well to access the existing water supply fell $30,000 short, and the village never secured the money needed to electrify the well and make it operable.

It’s not an isolated story, and one that highlights a “fragmented” state system for funding New Mexico’s water infrastructure. “Many New Mexico communities are already behind the curve, with significant as-yet-unfunded capital needs, looming or immediate threats to water supply or quality and limited financial, technical and administrative capacity to address water-related challenges, despite significant state support,” the LFC report states.

Translation: we haven’t been able to get our act together to make sure these communities have the infrastructure they need to ensure a reliable supply of clean water. That’s atrocious and inexcusable in 2021.

Yet we are spending money. New Mexico provided $876 million in grants and loans for water projects from mid-2016 to mid-2020. But the LFC report said communities often pursue money from an “uncoordinated” state system that may in fact discourage them from leveraging federal dollars to improve water infrastructure, and that design plans or construction reports are often missing from funding reviews. Three of 10 state-funded water projects studied by the LFC still were not complete.

The problems aren’t limited to water. The state has about 3,000 local capital outlay projects on the books. Only 300 to 400 of them exceed $1 million, meaning they often stay below the radar. And many are predicated on more than one source of funding, increasing the chances they won’t get done.

The LFC report recommends the Legislature create an interagency team to vet capital outlay projects and task the Environment Department with reporting back on water project progress.

That would be a good start. Because we can’t afford to keep spending millions on dams that won’t hold water.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.