February 15, 2023

Water, wildfire bills pass Senate Conservation Committee


La Canova Acequia near Velarde, New Mexico. Public domain.

Several bills focused on water or wildfire recovery passed the Senate Conservation Committee on Tuesday.

These bills include funds for acequia disaster response, creating a water protection permanent fund, establishing an acequia bureau within the Interstate Stream Commission and an exemption to the state procurement requirements for the State Forestry Division in certain circumstances.

Many of those bills are sponsored by Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas.

Acequia disaster response

SB 176 would increase the funding available through the Acequia and Community Ditch Fund for disaster response, recovery, and hazard mitigation from $2.5 million to $5 million annually. This increase would come from the Irrigation Works Construction Fund. It also appropriates $5 million from the Irrigation Works Construction Fund for planning, engineering design or construction of infrastructure associated with restoration, repair, disaster response, recovery and hazard mitigation, irrigation efficiency or flood protection. This would also allow the acequias to use that funding to meet cost share requirements for state and federal programs.

Campos is sponsoring SB 176 along with senators Leo Jaramillo, D-Española, Liz Stefanics, D-Cerillos, Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, and Rep. Ambrose Castellano, D-Las Vegas.

New Mexico Acequia Association Executive Director Paula Garcia said damages in Grant and Hidalgo counties alone total almost $3 million. She said that the governor has the authority through executive order to make $750,000 available per county, which is not sufficient.

Because the federal government has taken responsibility for the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, Garcia said the federal government is covering 100 percent of the recovery costs in the areas impacted by that fire.

But other parts of the state, such as Grant County, have been impacted by fires that were not started by the federal government and that means the acequias in those areas must provide some local match, usually around 25 percent.

“There’s a need for a state cost-share and this program is well positioned to provide that cost-share to the existing disaster programs,” she said.

Coming up with the money to match the state or federal funding that is available after a disaster can be a challenge for acequias.

At the same time, the Interstate Stream Commission expressed concerns about relying on the Irrigation Works Construction Fund, which has been decreasing in recent years. 

SB 176 passed the committee on a 8-0 vote.

The bill now heads to the Senate Finance Committee.

Water protection permanent fund

SB 195 would create a water protection permanent fund that would help address infrastructure needs such as dam repairs in New Mexico. 

Campos also sponsored this bill, which passed the committee on a 8-0 vote.

Campos said the bill would essentially allocate $150 million from the state’s general fund to the water protection permanent fund for the state investment officer to invest. The money generated through investing this money could then be used for projects like dam repair.

Campos said the water system overall in New Mexico has been neglected.

“We have literally dozens of dams that are at high risk,” he said.

The bill also appropriates $8 million to the water protection permanent fund for the Interstate Stream Commission to administer. This funding could be used to hire staff and to help address infrastructure like dams, diversions and reservoirs.

State Engineer Mike Hamman said the Dam Safety Bureau has identified more than 70 dams statewide that are in need of repair. 

The bill now heads to the Senate Finance Committee.

Acequia bureau

Campos also sponsored SB 239, which would create a new acequia bureau within the Interstate Stream Commission and appropriates $300,000 from the state’s general fund for that purpose. It passed on a 7-0 vote and now heads to the Senate Finance Committee.

Procurement process

SB 206, sponsored by Senators Carrie Hamblen, D-Las Cruces, and Pat Woods, R-Broadview, as well as Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, would create an exemption allowing the State Forestry Division to bypass the procurement process when distributing federal funding to nonprofits that have already been awarded the money through the federal procurement process. 

The bill passed on a 7-1 vote and now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Other bills 

The committee also passed bills that would raise hunting and fishing license fees, allow horse rescues to have the right of first refusal of seized and abandoned equines and a bill banning single-use plastic grocery bags in stores.

The hunting and fishing license fees have not increased in about 17 years, according to New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Director Michael Sloane. 

The department receives most of its funding from the sales of hunting and fishing licenses. 

The average increase for resident licenses would be $7.78 while the highest increase for New Mexico residents would be $25. Nonresidents would see larger increases with an average increase of $80.45 and a maximum increase of $255.

SB 254, increasing the license fees, is sponsored by Campos as well as Sen. Steve Neville, R-Farmington. It passed on a 5-2 vote.

“This is really the only funding source for all wildlife in New Mexico,” Sloane said.

He said the department works with deer, elk and bass as well as animals that are not hunted or fished such as the Jemez Mountains salamander.

SB 254 now heads to the Senate Finance Committee.

Hamblen is sponsoring HB 271, the equine definition bill. She said it defines equine more clearly and makes it easier for horse rescues to bring the equines into their facilities without having to go through the auction process when the animals are in New Mexico Livestock Board custody.

When the state Livestock Board confiscates equines or when an equine is found roaming and is not reclaimed, the current law requires the animal be sold to the highest bidder, according to the fiscal impact report.

The bill expands the definition to include donkeys, ponies, hinnies and mules as well as horses.

Susan Hemmerle, the executive director of the Horse Shelter, said that it’s in the best interest of the animals if they are sent to a shelter that has the expertise and veterinarians on call to care for them. In many cases, she said, the equines are severely emaciated and it can take up to six months for the horses to recover. At that point, she said, the animals can be placed up for adoption and a nominal adoption fee is charged.

The bill passed on an 8-0 vote and now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Finally, the single-use plastic bag ban, SB 243, follows bans enacted by cities like Santa Fe, Las Cruces and Silver City.

It is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces. He said the bill would prevent 500 million bags annually from entering New Mexico’s environment. 

Eight states including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont have passed similar bans on single-use plastic bags.

The Senate Conservation Committee voted 6-1 in support of the bill. It now heads to the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee.