“I wish I had better news,” said Dave DuBois, New Mexico’s State Climatologist and director of the NM Climate Center at the New Mexico State University, during a weather outlook webinar hosted by the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) held in May. DuBois was looking at a three-month weather outlook map forecasting rain during New Mexico’s summer months and monsoon season.
“I really didn’t want to see this,” he said, swirling his mouse over a patch of brown in the Four Corners area. “Not a lot of good news there. This is showing some probability for below-average precipitation for northwest New Mexico.”
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Experts agree 2020 is shaping up to be a challenging year for water in New Mexico. Despite a near-normal snowpack last winter, dry soil conditions and a very warm spring — with hardly any precipitation since January — has thrust much of the state into drought conditions, again.
John Fleck, director of the Water Resources program at the University of New Mexico, referred to it as a “sneaky drought” during a separate presentation hosted by NIDIS.
A stream access dispute that has been brewing for years between public access advocates and landowners could be resolved once and for all, now that litigation has brought the matter to the New Mexico Supreme Court. In March, three conservation and public access organizations, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), and Adobe Whitewater Club, filed a lawsuit against the governor and the state Game Commission. While it’s hard to boil the issue down into a few lines, balancing the rights of landowners with those of the public is an integral component of the lawsuit, which asks the Supreme Court to strike down a 2017 state Department of Game and Fish rule that enabled landowners to restrict access to streambeds and banks that line waterways located on private property.
That rule was the result of a 2015 bill that became law, codifying thirty years of Game and Fish regulations that considered members of the public from walking onto private property from public waterways as trespassing.
RELATED: Heinrich defends stream access as issue heads to NM Supreme Court
The state Supreme Court took up the case at the end of March, and by mid-April, a contingent of landowners and other groups, including the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides (NMCOG), requested to intervene in the case in support of the 2017 Game and Fish rule, arguing that they would be negatively impacted by a potential Supreme Court ruling striking it down.
Groups on both sides of the dispute all have different ideas about what’s at issue, and what’s at stake, but all parties are quick to point out the dispute is incredibly complicated. And while there’s no shortage of opinions on the topic, stakeholders on both sides of the fence seem to agree on one thing: it was a 2014 opinion issued by then-Attorney General Gary King that started the whole thing.
Private property and public waters
The New Mexico constitution states that “unappropriated water of every natural stream, perennial or torrential,” within the state of New Mexico, is “declared to belong to the public and to be subject to appropriation for beneficial use, in accordance with the laws of the state.”
Everyone agrees that the waters of New Mexico are public, Kerrie Romero, executive director of NMCOG, told NM Political Report. What’s in dispute is how the public can access those waters.
This time last year, the riverbed of the Rio Grande south of Socorro was sandy, the edges of its channel strewn with desiccated fish. Even through Albuquerque, the state’s largest river was flowing at just about 400 cubic feet per second, exposing long sandbars and running just inches deep. This year, the Middle Rio Grande is booming, nearly ten times higher than it was last April—and it’s still rising. Running bank-to-bank, the river’s waters are lapping up over low spots along the bank, nourishing trees and grasses, replenishing groundwater and creating much-needed habitat for young fish and other creatures. This year’s high flows through the Middle Rio Grande come thanks to a mix of natural conditions, like snowpack, and also manipulation of the river’s flows from dams, diversions and interstate water-sharing agreements.
SILVER CITY, N.M.—On Monday morning, the organization responsible for planning and building a diversion on the Gila River convened a special meeting to discuss a letter from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In that letter, the federal agency reiterated concerns over the project’s schedule. During the special meeting, New
Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity board members placed blame for the
delays squarely on the shoulders of Reclamation itself, along with the
contractor hired to conduct environmental studies, environmental groups and the
administration of former-Gov. Bill Richardson. NM Political Report obtained a copy of the letter, which is from Reclamation’s Phoenix office area manager, Leslie Meyers. In it, Meyers follows up on a March 15 conference call between Reclamation and the CAP Entity and asks if the group plans to continue spending money on the environmental impact statement (EIS).
All week, we look for stories that help New Mexicans better understand what’s happening with water, climate, energy, landscapes and communities around the region. We love when you read the NM Environment Review on our webpage. But wouldn’t you rather see all the news a day earlier, and have it delivered straight to your inbox? To subscribe to the weekly email, click here. Here’s a snippet of what subscribers read this week:
Last week, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the last of the bills from the 2019 legislative session, she line-item vetoed $1.698 million in New Mexico Unit funding for the Gila River diversion.
In a lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force, New Mexico alleges the military isn’t doing enough to contain or clean up dangerous chemicals that have seeped into the groundwater below two Air Force bases in the state. On Tuesday, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) filed a complaint in federal district court, asking a judge to compel the Air Force to act on, and fund, cleanup at the two bases near Clovis and Alamogordo. “We have significant amounts of PFAS in the groundwater, under both Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases,” NMED Secretary James Kenney told NM Political Report. PFAS, or per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are toxic, human-manufactured chemicals that move through groundwater and biological systems. Even in small amounts, exposure to PFAS increases the risk of testicular, kidney and thyroid cancer and problems like ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension. NMED Secretary James Kenney
“We want the groundwater cleaned up in the shortest amount of time possible, and we think at this point litigation is our best and fastest approach,” Kenney said.
What do ranchers, environmentalists, counties, scientists and state regulators have in common? They all want to know what’s happening with New Mexico’s rivers, springs, aquifers and reservoirs. The Water Data Act, which unanimously passed the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee Thursday morning, would help various agencies organize and share their water data. The bill’s sponsors include Rep. Melanie Stansbury, an Albuquerque Democrat, and Rep. Gail Armstrong, a Republican who lives in Magdalena and represents one of the most rural parts of the state. Rep. Melanie Stansbury
Environment-related bills have been moving through the Roundhouse this year, addressing issues ranging from climate change to renewable energy.
“How’s your day today?” the grocery store cashier asks. “Oh my God,” I can’t stop myself. Even though I know the checker wasn’t expecting anything more than the requisite, “Fine and you?” response. I launch into a hand-waving homage to the day: I just got back from the Sandias, where there’s this little spring, and I learned the coolest thing. Scientists can tell if springs, like that come out of the mountain…they can figure out if that groundwater came from summer monsoons, or from winter snowmelt. Because get this: They study the water’s isotopes.
Fourteen years after Congress authorized New Mexico to trade 14,000 acre feet of water with a downstream user in Arizona—and four years after a state commission voted to build a diversion on the Gila River—there’s little to show for the project, other than continued confusion and about $17 million in spent money. “The process is going to end at some point,” said Norman Gaume, an opponent of the project and a former director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC). “It’s a question of how much more money will they waste?”
At an ISC meeting on Thursday, the state approved an additional $110,000 for the engineering firm Stantec, as well as an amendment that would allow the quasi-governmental organization in charge of the project to someday spend money slated for the diversion on other water projects. But, noted Gaume, each of the 15 members of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity will need their governing boards to approve it, too. In practical terms, he said, the change means little: the joint powers agreement says the state can only spend money on the diversion.
Shortly after Michelle Lujan Grisham was elected governor, she started assembling her transition teams for various state agencies. In November, Lujan Grisham announced that Sarah Cottrell Propst and Toby Velasquez will head the Natural Resources Committee, which reviews the agencies that oversee water, energy and environment issues. Velasquez is deputy director of New Mexico State Parks. Cottrell Propst is executive director of Interwest Energy Alliance and served as the energy and environmental policy advisor to Gov. Bill Richardson from 2006 to 2010. Over the weekend, Lujan Grisham announced transition teams for the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department; the Environment Department; the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission.