Saying the days of big water projects and large federal investment are over, Udall said in an interview Wednesday that the legislation looks instead at the full range of the federal government’s water operations in the state, and ways current laws could be tweaked and additional financial support provided to stretch the state’s limited supplies.
The legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., creates a framework that would allow the government to buy water from farmers to use for environmental flows, an attempt to sidestep the sort of fish-vs.-farmers Endangered Species Act battles that have broken out across the western United States.
If the program involves farmers willing to sell their water, such a program could be beneficial, said Subhas Shah, chief executive of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the largest farm water agency in central New Mexico and one of the state’s largest water users.
Such an approach could help keep water in the state’s rivers “while helping farmers make a living,” said Beth Bardwell of Audubon New Mexico.
The legislation also calls for a study of the way New Mexico’s federal reservoirs are operated, with an eye toward better coordination. Water managers sometimes complain that they are handcuffed by narrow operating rules, saying they could move water more efficiently down the Rio Grande to meet farm, municipal and environmental needs if reservoir rules were more flexible.
One example is Cochiti Dam, a flood control structure operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The dam’s managers are required to pass through incoming water, only capturing water temporarily in a major flood. Farm water managers would like to be able to temporarily store water from summer rainstorms behind the dam, to even out late-year supplies for farmers.
The bill also calls for a separate study of how water is managed in the San Acacia stretch of the river in Socorro County, including the possibility of “modification or possible removal” of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s San Acacia Diversion Dam.
Environmentalists have long said that the dam makes it impossible for fish to move up and down the river, fragmenting their habitat.
Shah said Wednesday the agency had “some concerns” about that provision of the bill because of a fear that removing the dam would make it harder to get irrigation water to Socorro County farmers.