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The Colorado River Basin states need to adapt to extreme drought, prepare for a more arid climate and include tribes in water decisions, New Mexico water officials told a congressional panel Friday.
The basin serves 40 million people in seven states.
New Mexico State Engineer John D’Antonio said water managers should find a way to balance scientific data and legal obligations as the basin enters a third decade of drought.
“The system will need to be addressed, not only for worse drought than we have experienced today, but also for shortened wet periods, from an infrastructure and public health and safety standpoint,” D’Antonio told a House Natural Resources subcommittee.
San Juan-Chama Project water diverted from the Colorado boosts natural river flows along the Rio Grande in New Mexico.
But the state received about 40% less water than expected from that project this year.
New Mexico is entitled to an 11% share of Colorado River water and currently uses about half of that allocation.
D’Antonio said the state’s future plans to “develop” those water rights include such initiatives as the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared the first Colorado River water shortage earlier this year. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico are expected to receive less water next year as a result.
Reclamation is also supplementing Lake Powell levels this year by releasing nearly 59 billion gallons from Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, Blue Mesa in Colorado and Flaming Gorge in Utah and Wyoming.
Daryl Vigil, Jicarilla Apache Nation’s water administrator, said now is a “pivotal moment in time” to include tribes in management decisions.
The 30 basin-area tribes have about 25% of Colorado River water rights. “We don’t have to re-create the wheel in terms of a (management) model,” Vigil said.
He pointed to renegotiations of water compacts in the Columbia River Basin. Tribes were recognized as decision-makers on an equal footing with state and federal governments, instead of being consulted after the sharing agreements were finalized.
“(Tribes) have experienced not only hundreds, but thousands, of years of sustainable and adaptive living,” Vigil said. “We understand the importance of honoring the very things that keep us alive.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.