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In a year marked by extreme water conditions – drought, floods and record-low reservoirs – New Mexicans continue to debate how best to manage scarce water supplies.
A panel of water experts on Wednesday encouraged the legislative Water and Natural Resources Committee to improve water management by investing in data collection and state agency budgets. Stacy Timmons, the associate director for hydrogeology programs at the state’s Geology and Mineral Resources Bureau, said “vintage” data systems prevent officials and residents from finding quick answers to water questions.
“In some agencies, there’s a lack of a data system entirely, where there are multiple Excel spreadsheets that are archived on different hard drives,” said Timmons, who also serves on the Interstate Stream Commission. “And in other cases, even worse, paper data are archived on shelves and file cabinets.”
Timmons recommended boosting New Mexico Tech’s state budget for the Water Data Initiative from $100,000 annually to $600,000.
The project tasks state agencies with integrating water data into usable formats. The university is also mapping the state’s aquifers to “fill a data gap” on groundwater quantity and quality.
That data could come in handy as entities pump more groundwater because of limited water flowing in rivers and streams.
“We’re kind of into this new level of scarcity where relying on instinct, rather than evidence-based decisions, is no longer going to work for us,” Timmons said. The Office of the State Engineer’s 2015 estimates show that irrigated agriculture accounts for 76% of New Mexico water use.
State Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, said adapting to a changing climate will require examining the economic hurdles farmers and ranchers face as traditional water supplies dwindle.
“It would seem to me that eventually water will flow to the point of greatest economic benefit,” Scott said. “The fact that we have overallocated our resources in the state is a problem that has to be addressed, and it cannot be addressed without including agriculture in that conversation.”
Funding for water agencies like the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission needs a “remodel,” said Kyle Harwood, a Santa Fe water lawyer.
“These agencies are stretched very thin,” Harwood said. “They’ve been asked to do more and more with less and less over the last decade.”
Harwood recommended that lawmakers replace the OSE’s two trust funds with general fund revenue, and increase baseline funding to add 40 employees over the next two years.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.