February 12, 2020

Bill to fund repairs for some dangerous dams clears Senate committee

A bill that would appropriate $100 million to repair some of New Mexico’s most dangerous dams advanced Tuesday in the state Senate.

The money would pay for only a fraction of what is needed to address all the structural issues of scores of dams across the state that pose safety risks, according to the state engineer.

“With one breach, we could lose property, we could lose our animals and we could lose, most importantly, lives here in New Mexico,” said Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, sponsor of Senate Bill 236.

Lawmakers on the Senate Conservation Committee approved the measure 8-0 Tuesday. It now heads to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.

The safety of New Mexico’s dams has raised concerns among lawmakers for more than a year, following the release of a report by the State Engineer’s Office saying 170 of the 298 dams it oversees are classified as “high-hazard” structures — meaning they could lead to the loss of life or property if they collapsed — and many of them are aging and in poor condition.

A report given to Senate Conservation Committee members Tuesday detailed the conditions of 69 publicly owned dams and said more than half of them are in poor or unsatisfactory condition. 

Included in the report were the city of Santa Fe’s Nichols and McClure reservoirs. They were listed in poor condition, and the report said they require between $500,000 and $1 million each for upgrades and repairs.

State Engineer John D’Antonio told the committee his office maintains a neutral stance on SB 236 because Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham did not include the funding in her budget recommendation for fiscal year 2021.

It would probably cost $300 million to maintain and upgrade all of the state’s dams, he said, though the state can leverage some federal funds to help pay for those projects.

“At some point, it will really behoove the state to try to do this over a period of time,” D’Antonio said. One challenge in addressing the issue, he added, is that his office has only four dam safety engineers on hand to conduct inspections.

Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, said the time is right for the state, flush with oil and gas revenues, to make a one-time investment to fix some of the most dangerous dams so “we don’t have to come up with extra money when there’s a dam break or something critical.”