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Sunday, March 23, 2003

Bills Plentiful, but Few Passed as Session Closed

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
    Legislators had mixed success passing significant water reforms this session despite a bevy of bill introductions and Gov. Bill Richardson's emphasis on the importance of the issue.
    Bills failed that would have addressed the growing number of domestic wells tapping into aquifers around the state and provided funding to speed up water rights adjudications.
    But legislators did pass bills that would expedite water marketing and leasing by the state engineer, require the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to develop a statewide watershed restoration strategy and streamline leasing of irrigation water to municipalities.
    The Legislature also gave acequias more control over their water with measures to require acequia approval before water rights are moved out of the system and to allow acequias to set up water banks.
    In all, more than 80 bills related to water issues were introduced during the session.
    Efforts to give the state engineer some control over domestic wells failed. Many believe the increasing number of such wells is hampering New Mexico's ability to meet its obligations to deliver river water to Texas and hurting other water users.
    But current law requires the state engineer to approve all new domestic well applications.
    Three bills (HB 307, SB 484, SB 565) would have allowed the state engineer to deny or limit new wells, but they did not make much progress.
    "It seems like it might not go anywhere," Conci Bokum, water project director for 1000 Friends of New Mexico, said as the session neared its close.
    The other piece of legislation that was a priority for the urban growth strategy group 1000 Friends of New Mexico fared better.
    Legislators in both houses unanimously approved and Richardson signed a bill (SB 195/HB 260) that creates the framework for a statewide water plan.
    "The bill is an opportunity for everybody to present their view of how things should be done," said Bill Hume, the governor's policy and planning adviser.
    Calling it a "giant step forward in water conservation," Richardson earlier this month signed a bill (HB 114) that allows residents to water their gardens with household "gray water."
    Another bill (HB 744) that Hume worked on stalled before ever reaching the House floor. That bill would have allocated $2.4 million to water rights adjudications. Richardson and others have said it is important that New Mexico quickly sort out the legal question of who owns the rights to water.
    Another funding bill (HB 882) would allocate 10 percent of the state's severance tax bonding capacity to water projects for 10 years. The measure was approved unanimously by the House and passed the Senate.
    The bill would generate an estimated $200 million to be doled out by the Water Trust Board, which has identified $2.3 billion in regional and statewide water project needs.
    "Our water needs are a top priority statewide and by having a dedicated funding stream for water projects, we assure New Mexicans that the state is responsive to those needs," said House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe. who sponsored the bill.
    The Legislature did send Richardson a bill (SB 554) that would require local governments and large water suppliers to adopt conservation and drought management plans. Richardson likes the bill, according to Hume.
    Richardson already signed a bill (SB 551) that officially recognizes the state engineer's authority to administer water allocations in accordance with water rights priorities. The bill also expedites water marketing and leasing by the state engineer.
    Two other bills that passed would allocate $1.6 million as a 20 percent match for the state to get federal grant money for drinking water projects (SB 109) and exempt irrigators from losing the rights to water they save by improving efficiency (SB 128).