August 20, 2018

Outgoing administration won’t talk about water plan, but gubernatorial candidates will

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Laura Paskus

El Vado Reservoir on the Chama River in northern New Mexico

Anyone who is paying attention to the Rio Grande’s drying riverbed and dropping reservoirs or is worried about declining groundwater levels probably has something to say about how the state might handle current—and coming—challenges. And they currently have their chance.

The public comment period for New Mexico’s draft water plan ends next week. And while top state officials wouldn’t speak about the plan, New Mexico’s gubernatorial candidates were eager to share their thoughts about water, drought and water planning in the state.

The draft plan released earlier this year by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission examines statewide water issues through the lens of 16 regional water plans the ISC developed with input from local governments, nonprofits and stakeholders.

The New Mexico State Water Plan Statute requires the ISC review its state water plan at least every five years.

This plan is the first update since 2003.

According to the draft plan, the top concern is “insufficient water supply.” That’s followed by vulnerability to climate change, water management, the need to better understand water resources, water quality, and water infrastructure and its maintenance. Throughout the entire state, all of the 16 planning regions are projected to have less than 75 percent of the water they need to meet demands in 2060 under current drought forecasts, and four of those are projected to have less than 20 percent of the necessary supply.

Groundwater overpumping is a problem, particularly in eastern New Mexico, where water levels are declining in the Ogalalla/High Plains aquifer by more than five feet per year. Overpumping is also dropping aquifers in southwestern New Mexico, as well as near Maxwell, Ojitos Frios, Magdalena, Santa Fe, Eldorado, La Cienega, in mountain communities east of Albuquerque and in the lower Rio Grande.

The plan also includes 69 recommendations taken from the regional plans and a town hall-style meeting earlier this year. These touch on everything from improving groundwater modeling, better understanding climate change impacts and accounting for water lost from reservoirs through evaporation to requiring a longer-term planning process than 40 years and metering groundwater wells.

It’s an ambitious plan. And although many state employees and contractors, as well as local officials and stakeholders, have worked on this plan over the course of years, top New Mexico officials wouldn’t talk about it—nor about current drought conditions or the state’s increasingly critical water situation.

NM Political Report reached out to the Office of the Governor and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. Gov. Susana Martinez’s director of communications, Benjamin Cloutier, ignored emails and phone calls. Requests to interview ISC Director John Longworth about the plan and its implementation were ignored, as were email and phone messages directly to Longworth.

Since the New Mexico’s next governor will inherit the state’s water challenges and also guide the direction state agencies and commissions take in the coming years, we reached out to the state’s two gubernatorial candidates, Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Rep. Steve Pearce.

Lujan Grisham: water planning an ‘afterthought’ for current administration

Lujan Grisham applauded the hard work of the state’s water stakeholders in updating the water plan.

“All 16 regions should be commended for their collaborative efforts to identify the risks, evaluate solutions and set goals that are critical to all New Mexicans,” she wrote in an email. “The draft plan underscores the importance of working together to protect New Mexico water.”

But, she said, she’s concerned that under the current administration the water planning process has been an afterthought.

“State law requires updating the water plan every five years—at a minimum. We need to do more if we are going to rise to the challenges we now face. Gov. Martinez and our state’s water leaders have not invested the time or energy in keeping New Mexico prepared in a changing environment,” she said, adding that as governor she would “commit the financial and administrative resources necessary to make responsible water management planning and execution an ongoing, robust, adequately funded, statewide effort—not an just exercise that occurs every five years.”

Laura Paskus

Rep. Michelle Lujan-Grisham, a Democrat, represents the First Congressional District and is running for governor.

She pointed to other specific concerns, including that streamflow totals in the Rio Grande and other rivers in the Southwest were 5 percent to 37 percent lower between 2001 and 2010 than the average of 20th century flows. Drought and the rising temperatures, associated with climate change, she said, have caused tree die-offs and will continue to affect late-winter and spring snowpack, snowmelt and decreased soil moisture.

“These changes pose increased risks to the previous water supplies we need to maintain our communities, support agriculture, enable economic growth, and maintain New Mexico’s culture and environments, including endangered species,” she said. “To ensure adequate supply and create a realistic, sustainable plan, we need to rethink how we manage this precious resource. Smart water management and conservation have to become a way of life in New Mexico.”

Building statewide systems, related to everything from infrastructure to professional capacity, will better prepare the state for the “inevitable water shocks of an unpredictable future.”

Water needs to be managed in a way that’s fair and serves all New Mexicans, she said.

“Conservation and drought mitigation must be an ongoing effort. We must invest in reclamation, data collection, watershed restoration, and smarter planning processes in partnership between an engaged state government and stakeholders across the state,” she said. “This process of investment and planning will help us sustain a resilient economy for the long run.”

She also called for cooperation among state and federal agencies, local officials and stakeholders when it comes to setting and meeting water management goals and protecting existing water supplies.

“We need cooperation between the Office of the State Engineer, the Environment Department, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other state and federal agencies to engage in data collection and water monitoring,” according to Lujan Grisham. “This will help identify problems early in order to develop and implement realistic water management plans and drought response actions. Our acequias are not just a unique cultural tradition. They are a guide for how we can work together to keep New Mexico strong.”

Pearce: priorities include overgrown watersheds and a center of excellence

Republican gubernatorial nominee Steve Pearce said he’s paid close attention to water issues since serving as a state legislator from 1997 to 2000. He hasn’t read the draft water plan, but said very few of the plans he’s seen in the past are “coherent and thorough” enough to address New Mexico’s water challenges.

While the climatological record going back about 2,000 years shows periods of intense, long-term drought, modern inhabitants of New Mexico have known relatively wet periods, he said. Even the drought of the 1950s doesn’t compare to those ancient droughts: “That tells you that over a long historical period, we have been in a very wet time,” he said. And it also indicates we need to take the issues seriously.

“I would set up a Center of Excellence for Water,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “New Mexico should be the premier place in the country that knows and handles water.”

Pearce’s first priority would be restoring overgrown watersheds. “They suck up the water that would otherwise percolate into our aquifers and our streams,” he said. “Our streams are not healthy, our aquifers are not healthy.” As arid as New Mexico is, he said, it cannot sustain the number of trees currently in its forests.

“We’re also going to have to be much more active in defending our water,” Pearce said, pointing out that neighboring states are more aggressive in defending their water, and funding those battles.

Courtesy of Pearce for New Mexico campaign

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-Hobbs, represents southern New Mexico in Congress, and is running for governor.

Pearce also said the state should clean up its brackish water reserves and reuse or recycle wastewater from the oil and gas industry. According to a study several years ago, he said, just within the city limits of Hobbs, about 42 million gallons of wastewater is produced each day. There’s potential, he said, to refine that water, as well as produced water in Eddy County and near Farmington.

New Mexico also needs to take a longer-term approach to investing in infrastructure. With budget surpluses in coming years, the state shouldn’t be spending that in “scattered ways” but rather taking a 20 or 50 year view of how to sustain water infrastructure.

“I don’t think anyone in New Mexico thinks we don’t need better solutions to water than we have right now,” he said. “And engagement of the public is key.”

When asked if there were any other water-related issues he wanted to discuss, Pearce brought up food.

“It might be a tangent, but I want New Mexico to become food self-sufficient. That’s one of the most urgent short-term adjustments we need to make in our economy,” he said. “I visualize that being achieved through the current production we’re doing and a system of interlocked, hydroponic, organic greenhouses across the state, in rural areas where we need the jobs, and where we generally have the water and the space.”

He thinks that could happen over the course of five years.

“The first destination of the food from the greenhouses would be our schools, to make sure our kids have food that don’t have pesticides, and are as fresh and clean as we can get them,” he said. “We could have a system across the state so counties can feed their own school systems.”

Hydroponic, organic greenhouses have been developed in California and Arizona, he said, and could happen on a larger scale here in New Mexico.

And he added, “One of the key elements, as we do that, is we figure out how to produce a lot more food with less water consumption.”

To read and comment on the draft New Mexico State Water Plan, visit here. On that page, select the gray box labeled “View Draft New Mexico State Water Plan,” which will redirect to a Dropbox page where the plan’s documents can be downloaded. Comments are due by Aug. 25, 2018.