Governor unveils 50-year water action plan

After years of waiting, the plan is an ‘evolution’ of another drafted in 2022

By: - January 31, 2024 3:14 am

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham holds a news conference to announce a 50 year plan for water use in New Mexico. The news conference was held in the Governor’s office, Tuesday, January 30, 2024. (Photo by Eddie Moore / Albuquerque Journal)

Even as New Mexico water supplies are predicted to decline by more than 25% over the next five decades, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she always views the glass as half-full, in the Tuesday presentation of a long-awaited report addressing the state’s water needs for the next 50 years.

Or really: “45 years, since it took us five years to write it,” the governor quipped.

Over the next 50 years, due to human-driven climate change, scientists say New Mexico will be hotter, drier and lead to less water. Hotter weather shrinks the snowbanks, parches the soils and shrivels the rivers. Less available water in rivers puts more pressure on New Mexico aquifers and reduces the chances to refill them. Climate change also turns up the heat on wildfires, which decimate watersheds, and will deepen droughts and worsen flooding.

Without action, New Mexico will have a shortage of 750,000 acre feet of water in that time period, according to the document.

The 23-page document proposes using water conservation, new water supplies and protections for watersheds to address the shortfall. It breaks down further into 11 subsections with points to develop public education campaigns, improve infrastructure, modernize wastewater treatment plants and protect and restore watersheds.

“It conserves water and it reduces waste,” Lujan Grisham said. “If it’s leaking, and it’s evaporating, we don’t know where it is, and if we’re not protecting it and if it gets polluted.”

During an hour-long press conference before the document was made public, Lujan Grisham advocated again for a plan to invest half a billion dollars to develop a market in desalination and oil wastewater treatment technology.

Lujan Grisham described the quantities of brackish water (salty water) in deep underground aquifers to be as vast as an “ocean.”

“We should not be using our fresh drinking water in a number of industries,” she said. “Because we don’t need to make that choice between your safe drinking water and your business. We have the chance here to do both. And that’s exactly the path we’re on.”

Lujan Grisham said that treated produced and brackish water would not be used for drinking water or agricultural sources, but only in manufacturing and industrial uses, at this time.

It’s unclear how much brackish water would be available to support the governor’s goals, said State Geologist J. Michael Timmons, because the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources has not received full funding for an aquifer mapping project. An executive budget request asked for $9 million dollars for aquifer mapping.

“There are probably vast amounts of water, we need to better understand the quantity and quality of that water,” Timmons said. “It leads to the details of how accessible it is, to draw it through the rock formations. There’s a lot of work to be done on our part as a state agency, and others, to better understand those resources.”

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, center, holds a news conference to announce a 50 year plan for water use in New Mexico. Environment Secretary James Kenny, left, is taking part in the news conference being held in the Governor’s Office, Tuesday, January 30, 2024. (Photo by Eddie Moore / Albuquerque Journal)

At the press conference, Lujan Grisham was joined by the governors from Sandia and Santa Clara Pueblos, the New Mexico Environment Department secretary, the Clovis mayor and several lawmakers.

Some water advocates celebrated the priorities in the plan upon first review. Allyson Siwik, the executive director of Gila Resources Information Project, said she was pleased to see watershed pollution protections, restoration projects, stormwater management and drinking water infrastructure included.

Others said the plan did not address the issues facing New Mexico’s water crisis, including Melissa Troutman, a climate and energy advocate for WildEarth Guardians.

“The governor’s water plan ignores critical water threats in New Mexico, such as daily oil and gas spills that go unpenalized,” Troutman said in a written statement. “And her Strategic Water Supply incentivizes water-intensive industrial development like hydrogen, manufacturing, and fossil fuels that are inappropriate for any arid bioregion.”

How did we get here?

Lujan Grisham has been calling for a 50-year water plan since 2019. While lawmakers declined to fund the plan  in prior years, New Mexico In Depth reported lawmakers provided $250,000 annually for the 50-year water plan and granted $500,000 in a one-time appropriation to the Office of the State Engineer in 2023.

A draft of the 50-year water plan circulated in 2022. What was presented today, “evolved” from that draft, said the governor’s spokesperson Maddy Hayden.

“The Action Plan released today evolved from the draft 50-Year Water Plan shared with the public and Water Task Force members in 2022 and reflects the Governor’s priority actions to provide water security for future New Mexicans,” Hayden wrote.

Hayden continued to say that the plan  “complements many ongoing state agency programs” and that the implementation will have community involvement.

The 50-year plan is separate from the state water plans, which must be reviewed every five years.

The action plan is based on input from state agencies, a 29-member task force, two working groups which focused on tribal water and acequias, and a 192-page report analyzing the science of climate change impacts based on peer-reviewed research in New Mexico.

It bears little resemblance to those other reports.

The New Mexico Water Policy and Infrastructure Taskforce led by state environmental agencies, but also with lawmakers, conservation nonprofits, local water districts, tribal governments and more, issued a 90-page report that included detailed recommendations for funding more data collection. The group outlined dollar amounts for future legislation and staffing levels to sustain these water plans.

The 50-year action plan asks for recurring funding of $1.25 million per year for aquifer mapping and any additional funds would provide more than 100 monitoring wells in the next 12 years.

The other funding request in the plan asks for $500 million in 2024 and 2025 for the Strategic Water Supply Project. The “Return on Investment” for that project, according to the document, would be 100,000 acre-feet of new water by 2028. By 2035, the report says, 50,000 acre-feet of treated brackish water would be available for “recharging freshwater aquifers,” or used for “communities, farms, aquatic ecosystems and interstate compact compliance.”

The report assigns deadlines for actions in the next few years, but does not indicate how much the goals cost to accomplish.

In one section, the report says in order to address contaminated groundwater across hundreds of sites – including legacy uranium sites, petroleum releases and other polluted spots, New Mexico will “develop a dashboard of all known contaminated groundwater sites, including the status and estimated cost of cleanup for each site.”

It would then, “launch a state program to pay for the remediation of 100 neglected sites with no responsible party,” by 2025.

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Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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