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As New Mexico confronts historic drought, massive wildfires and the looming threat of lengthy stretches of the Rio Grande going dry this summer, federal representatives have introduced two bills aimed at addressing drought and reforming regional water management.
The Water Data Act and the Rio Grande Water Security Act are backed by New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation – a rare bipartisan teamup on natural resource issues.
The data bill is modeled on a New Mexico law that Democratic U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury sponsored as a state legislator.
Stansbury said the bill would give farmers and local governments “tools and technologies” to make water decisions.
“We’re experiencing a drought that is millennial in its implications,” Stansbury told reporters Thursday. “And we know that our communities are struggling to figure out how we’re going to get through this summer.”
New Mexico has used funding from its own data legislation to build a website of water databases.
Groups across the state measure snowpack, river flow and even the vegetation that can prevent water from flowing.
The information helps agencies such as the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District.
The irrigation district carefully measures groundwater withdrawals for 100,000 acres in Chaves and Eddy counties.
Aron Balok, PVACD superintendent and a New Mexico Interstate Stream Commissioner, said data helps determine the health of the aquifer.
“Monitoring the rate of which (the aquifer) recovers after it has been stressed tells us whether or not we’re staying within that range of being sustainable,” Balok said.
Rep. Yvette Herrell, New Mexico’s sole Republican in Congress, called the bills a “game changer” and a chance to represent the state “as one unit and not have party lines in the way.”
“Much of the (water) data right now, the information, it’s difficult to find, it’s hard to understand,” Herrell said.
In addition to requiring federal agencies make data more accessible, the bill would fund grants for non-federal groups to modernize their water databases.
“It gives us the ability to work in a better way – to work smarter, not harder,” Herrell said.
The Rio Grande Water Security Act would task a federal working group with creating a 30-year basin-wide management plan.
Basin states, tribes, acequias and irrigation districts would inform the plan.
States that share the Rio Grande are governed by a compact signed in 1938.
The river has “plenty of infrastructure” to manage through difficult times, said Jason Casuga, chief engineer and CEO of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.
But reservoirs, dams and river channels may be “tied down” by rules written when floods – not drought – were the primary concern.
“All these different federal projects have carved this basin up, and we look at those projects individually,” Casuga said. “We don’t look at them in the context of the whole basin anymore.”
The Rio Grande bill would authorize agencies to implement the plan with water conservation projects and updates to federal infrastructure rules.
New Mexico owes about 41 billion gallons of water to downstream users under the compact.
That debt restricts storage of native Rio Grande water.
Water deliveries to Texas are also playing out in a legal dispute.
States have agreed to continue mediation, which could prevent the case from going before the U.S. Supreme Court.
But litigation is costly. The lawsuits can also strain water cooperation between states and impact local water users.
“It’s difficult and frustrating to talk to a farmer and try to explain why we can’t do something, not because the infrastructure doesn’t exist, but because the paperwork doesn’t allow it,” Casuga said.
A state climate report shows that annual average statewide temperatures could increase between 5 and 7 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 50 years if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.
A warmer climate could mean more frequent droughts and greater demands on groundwater.
Water management must adapt to that new reality, said Democratic Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández.
Interstate compacts, she said, were often written without a “good understanding of the river.”
“When we get to the point of sitting down and saying how do we … resolve the competing claims to wet water, not paper water, we need to know what is truly available, rather than what might have been available in a much wetter period of time,” Leger Fernandez said.
Lawmakers stressed the urgency of water programs as New Mexico copes with an early and intense fire season.
The largest wildfire in state history has grown to more than 300,000 acres across four counties.
“We know that that wildfire is going to severely impact our watersheds,” Leger Fernández said.
Comprehensive data, she said, would measure those water impacts.
The Rio Grande bill also reauthorizes the Pueblo Irrigation Fund.
Pueblos along the river could use the money for infrastructure projects.
Stuart Paisano, Sandia Pueblo governor and coalition chairman for the six Middle Rio Grande pueblos, said funds are needed as the river is suffering from drought and “dramatic reductions in snowpack.”
“It is essential for (pueblos) to update and modernize our aging and deteriorating irrigation facilities, which are sorely in need of repair, to maximize efficient use of diminishing water supplies,” Paisano said.
The Senate Energy Committee is scheduled to hear the package next week.
Stansbury said the bills have a tentative House hearing date on June 16, but that could be moved up if the legislation is incorporated into a broader wildfire and water package.
“It’s really crucial that we develop plans, infrastructure and partnerships that will help us manage these rivers and water resources in a future in which there’s going to be less water,” Stansbury said.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.