Last winter, snows didn’t come to the mountains, and the headwaters of the Rio Grande suffered from drought. In April, the river—New Mexico’s largest—was already drying south of Socorro. And over the summer, reservoir levels plummeted. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court battle between Texas, New Mexico and the U.S. government over the waters of the Rio Grande marches onward. At a meeting at the end of August, the special master assigned to the case by the Supreme Court set some new deadlines: The discovery period will close in the summer of 2020 and the case will go to trial no later than that fall.
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 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced the start of the scoping period for environmental analysis of the Gila River diversion in southwestern New Mexico. In its Federal Register notice Tuesday, Reclamation announced it will work with its co-lead, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), to solicit concerns from landowners who might be affected by the project. The agencies also seek public comment to help identify potential issues and alternatives that should be considered within the environmental impact statement, or EIS. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, agencies must study the environmental, economic, archaeological and cultural impacts of a project, and consider various alternatives to the project. As Reclamation notes on the EIS website, “commenting is not a form of ‘voting’ on an alternative.” In other words, comments should not focus on support or opposition for a project, but provide specific, detailed information about the effects of the project and issues the agencies should consider analyzing within the EIS.
By a tight vote Tuesday morning, the Senate Conservation Committee passed a water bill—one that represents the latest attempt to control spending on a controversial diversion on the Gila River. Introduced by Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, Senate Bill 72, would channel federal money earmarked for the diversion toward other water projects in southwestern New Mexico. It would appropriate $50 million toward fully implementing a regional water project in Grant County, other shovel-ready water projects in the area, a groundwater study of the Mimbres Basin aquifer and water planning for the City of Deming. Morales told NM Political Report that he sees passage of the bill as a way to move tens of millions of dollars in federal money in a “responsible way.”
The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) voted in 2014 to build the diversion, ten years after Congress authorized the state to trade 14,000 acre feet of water with a downstream user in Arizona. Already, New Mexico has spent more than $13 million of its federal subsidy on studies, engineering plans, and attorneys fees, although the state and the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity still lack a firm plan or location for the diversion.
At the end of last year, a state judge chipped away at a company’s plans to reopen a long-abandoned copper mine near Hillsboro. On Dec. 28, New Mexico Third Judicial District Court Judge James J. Wechsler found that most of the water rights claimed by the company are not valid. New Mexico Copper Corporation (NMCC) planned to use groundwater rights that two men purchased after operations were abandoned at Copper Flat Mine in 1982. William Frost and Harris Gray, along with NMCC and its attorneys, tried to show that those rights were still valid, even though the water hadn’t been put to use over the past four decades—or even when the mine operated.
The big news in New Mexico this week involved the state’s proposed science standards. At a hearing on Monday not one of the hundreds of people who showed up spoke in support of the state’s plans to implement statewide science standards with inadequate information climate change and evolution. Afterwards, the secretary of the Public Education Department announced they would back off some of those changes. It remains to be seen what the state will actually propose now, and how that process will go. But it was heartening to see that newspapers, radio stations, and even TV reporters all showed up to cover science and education this week.
This week, three members of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) resigned, including Chairman Caleb Chandler, Jim Wilcox and longtime board member, Jim Dunlap. Earlier this year, ISC Director Deborah Dixon also left. Her departure came shortly after a public disagreement with State Engineer Tom Blaine at an ISC meeting. Update: One of the ex-ISC members told NM Political Report why he quit. The ISC consists of nine commissioners appointed by the governor, including the director of the ISC and the State Engineer.
With a big deadline bearing down in 2019, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, or CAP Entity, has yet to choose a plan or exact location for the Gila Diversion. That’s despite already spending more than $12 million of the state’s federal subsidy for the project. At the end of September, AECOM—the engineering firm hired to come up with designs for the CAP Entity to choose from—presented board members with possible design ideas based on the group’s cost and needs. The CAP Entity was then supposed to decide at its October 3 meeting on a plan. Instead, the group punted.
Corruption has long been endemic to New Mexico government. And today, even when people ferret out potential problems or ethical lapses, there’s still a significant gap between the laws meant to protect people and the ability or willingness of state agencies to enforce them. In January, for example, conservation groups wrote to the state purchasing agent and director, asking him to look into a political donation from a company with a lucrative state contract. The company had contributed $1,000 to Gov. Susana Martinez’s political action committee during a time when the state’s Procurement Code prohibits political contributions, when proposals are being evaluated for the awarding of contracts. Months passed, and the activists didn’t hear back from the state purchasing agent or from the agency that had issued the contract, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC).
On Monday, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) voted to amend an engineering contract for the proposed Gila River diversion. The change was necessary because the company’s earlier work, done at the direction of the state and the entity planning the diversion, didn’t take into account crucial information. The ISC and the New Mexico Central Arizona (CAP) Entity has been moving diversions plans forward, even though the proposed infrastructure would cross lands owned by The Nature Conservancy and the state of New Mexico. Last week, the CAP Entity’s board of directors confirmed their latest plans weren’t going to work, and voted on a new scope of work for the engineering company, AECOM. According to a presentation by ISC Gila Basin Manager Ali Effati, the cost of the revised tasks and deletion of former tasks will offset each other.