January 28, 2022

Focus turns to rural water projects

Laura Paskus

In the eyes of some lawmakers, rural New Mexico often is neglected by state government and the big-city politicians who rule the Roundhouse.

A push to address the state’s myriad water infrastructure needs — part of a larger effort to prepare for the effects of a warming climate — could transform the current method of operation, as the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will try to focus on helping rural New Mexico.

Mike Hamman, the governor’s new water adviser, said Thursday that federal infrastructure funding prioritizes “underserved and neglected” communities.

“We’re going to try to flip the model because, right now, communities that have capacity are outcompeting the communities that suffer with their capacities,” Hamman told members of the Senate Conservation Committee.

“They don’t have good support, so that’s going to be something that will be very important for us … to try to coordinate that in a way that flips the model and puts some energy into helping our rural communities succeed and get the infrastructure they need to have good quality drinking water and wastewater systems,” he said.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said she appreciated the state’s efforts to help smaller communities in New Mexico.

“In our rural communities, a lot of times they just don’t even have the capacity to withstand federal audit, so they just need a lot of support for those federal dollars,” she said.

Hamman said he will serve as the point of contact in the Governor’s Office on water and water-related infrastructure matters. He is one of three recently appointed infrastructure advisers to the governor.

“That’s the buzzword of the day,” he said, referring to infrastructure. “We’ve got lots of infrastructure to address with the funding that we have and then assist in coordinating state and federal funding programs, [many of which] have a very strong emphasis on serving underserved communities.”

Hamman declined to comment after the meeting. But he told the committee the water projects built to date relied on 20th-century policies linked to a wetter-than-normal hydrologic cycle.

“If you look at the long-term hydrology that many scientists have been investigating for years, New Mexico has gone through some very serious droughts in the past,” he said. “It’s predicted that they will return, and I think we’re in a very serious one now.”

The conditions of today are a far cry from what he called “the fat and happy period of time in the water supply business” of a few decades ago.

“I’ve been observing the climate conditions since the ’80s. We had great water supply. Snowpack kept Elephant Butte [Reservoir] full,” Hamman said. “But we’ve seen a steady decline.”

Hamman said he grew up in Taos and remembers when snow would remain on the ground until late May, sometimes early June.

“You don’t see that and haven’t seen it for a very long time, so something’s been transitioning in that regard since the ’80s,” he said. “We’re seeing earlier spring runoffs, and it’s changing the hydrographs that were the technical basis for the infrastructure that was constructed for that wetter period of time.”

The first phase of the governor’s 50-year water plan, known as the Leap Ahead Analysis, is projecting increased aridity in the state, which he called “very, very concerning.”

He told the committee the state is eyeing both short- and long-term actions.

“There’s lots of things we need to look at in the longer term,” including developing agricultural systems “scaled to the new realities of the average water supply conditions,” he said.

Short-term actions include setting up a program for voluntary and temporary fallowing in areas stressed by surface water shortages, as well as addressing infrastructure needs with federal funds.

“We’re in a once-in-a-generational opportunity to take advantage of [American Rescue Plan Act] funding and the bipartisan infrastructure funds, and obviously, the state has a pretty good budget surplus as well that can be leveraged against the federal dollars in an effective way,” he said.

A 50-year water planning process is also underway.

“We’re going to do that through the formation, by executive order, of a water policy and infrastructure task force that will be very short-lived that will come back to you all and the governor by July with some very solid recommendations on the policy and priorities of infrastructure as we look to the 60-day session,” he said.

In the 30-day session underway, the Legislature is considering a bill that would appropriates $50 million from the general fund to the water trust fund in fiscal year 2023 and subsequent fiscal years.

Senate Bill 18 is “intended to build up the water trust fund so that the money can move over to water projects from around the state,” Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, who is sponsoring the legislation, said Tuesday before her proposal received a do-pass recommendation from the Senate Conservation Committee, which she chairs.