NM water experts: Upcoming legislative session ‘existentially important’

By: - December 8, 2022 4:29 am

Where there should be water in the Rio Grande in southern Albuquerque on Sept. 15, 2021. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

A group of local experts says the upcoming legislative session represents a crucial pivot point for the state’s water future. 

The New Mexico Water Ambassadors, a group convened at the direction of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, has met since June to come up with recommendations to handle the state’s water crisis.

Mike Hamman recently left the Interstate Stream Commission to become the State Engineer. He leads the task force that will call on the Legislature to, among other things, boost capacity and authority for the state’s water agencies and also revamp its planning strategy for water resiliency, which the group said is still based in the 1930s. 

“I think it’s existentially important that we make these changes,” said Norm Gaume, president of Middle Rio Grande Water Advocates and task force member, testified during a meeting last week. “It will be the governor and the 2023 legislature that we’re depending on to actually make the pivot.”

The Southwestern climate is increasingly arid due to human-caused climate change. Projections by leading experts anticipate a 25% reduction in the available water supply due to climate change. 

Meanwhile, the state is embroiled in a water lawsuit with Texas. Local experts said last legislative session that lawsuits over water rights will only increase as supply shrinks. 

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The group publicly described some of what they hope the New Mexico Legislature will enact to adapt to an increasingly arid climate. The group has yet to release its full list of recommendations. A spokesperson said they should be made public in about two weeks. But Gaume summarized them

He said the Office of the State Engineer and Interstate Stream Commission need better technology, more staff and greater reach to monitor and enforce water usage and quality. 

John D’ Antonio, resigned as State Engineer post in November 2021 due to a lack of staffing, he told the Albuquerque Journal at the time. 

And Gaume said the office has been desperately understaffed since positions were cut during the Gov. Susana Martinez administration. 

“The agencies need more staff and they need the resources,” he said. “They can’t even utilize the existing statutory tools that the legislature has passed over the last several years.”

The incoming Legislature will have “copious” infrastructure money, he said, and has allocated money for numerous local water infrastructure projects. But he said rural areas in particular need more technical help in getting the projects done. 

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“Rural and smaller communities just don’t have the resources to take complex water projects from an idea through planning and design and into construction,” he said. “So they may have the money but they don’t have the other resources that’s needed to put projects on the ground.”

Gaume’s comments came during the first of three meetings of the Water Policy and Infrastructure Task Force, a 29-person group of academics, state officials, lawmakers and others. 

It will present again virtually today at 6:30 p.m. State Engineer Mike Hamman will be the first panelist. Those interested in attending can register here

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.