State water plan being updated
By Sig Silber, Northern New Mexico Group Water Chair
In 2003 the first New Mexico State Water Plan was adopted. It is the intent of the Legislature that the Interstate Stream Commission, in collaboration with the Office of the State Engineer and the water trust board, prepare and implement a comprehensive state water plan. The state water plan shall be a strategic management tool.
The details of the water-planning statute can be viewed at
The statute seems to imply that the Water Plan should be updated every five years, although some interpret this as a need only for a review of the situation with an update of the Plan required only if conditions have changed substantially. Indeed, an Inter-Agency study was conducted in 2008 that led to “12 Areas to Prioritize.” But factors including funding limitations and the change in administration has delayed the process until recently. Now it seems that the updating process is shifting into high gear and the draft chapters of the plan will begin to be released for comment.
The Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) hopes to begin releasing chapters of the State Water Plan update in August, according to Planning Director Angela Bordegaray. A possible sequence of release: Water-Related Infrastructure and Funding, Statewide Water Supply and Demand, Climate Variability (including drought management), Canadian Basin, and San Juan Basin. These chapters will include updated information on current issues, information from the regional plans and will be a means to inform the public on funding needs and key projects.
The New Mexico Office of the State Engineer(OSE)/Interstate Stream Commission(ISC) has many water-related duties and works with many other organizations, so the State Water Plan produced and issued by the ISC is not the only vehicle for planning water management in New Mexico. Plus, the OSE/ISC has only partial jurisdiction over New Mexico’s water, focusing on quantity. The New Mexico Environment Department regulates quality, and the Oil Conservation Division has partial jurisdiction over water used or produced by oil and gas activities. The state Department of Agriculture, representing the largest user, agriculture, is to some extent left out of the planning process. Other state agencies that have an impact on how the OSE/ISC operates include Game and Fish and the Department of Finance.
An alphabet soup of federal agencies exercise jurisdiction over some of New Mexico’s water, especially rivers and reservoirs, including the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Department of Defense.
We also have 16 regional water-planning districts that each produce their own regional water plan.
Most cities and counties, water utilities, the state’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts and Irrigation Districts and in some cases acequias have their own plans.
Thus, the State Water Plan is important but exists within a myriad of perhaps a thousand water plans. It is a tangled web of activities and jurisdictions in need of more coordination for sustainable water management. That is one reason New Mexico tends to receive mediocre grades for its water planning, especially in terms of implementation. Given that we are so dependent on a small number of interstate streams, our decentralized approach may not be optimal.
The 2003 version of the plan focused on providing the Office of the State Engineer with better legislative authority to fulfill its mission. The challenges of climate change, which is referred to by the Martinez Administration as “climate variability,” is now obviously on the minds of the administration. This year an unusually small percentage of the state’s only slightly-below-average precipitation has translated into Rio Grande stream flow, jeopardizing agriculture and ecosystems. Impacts on aquifer recharge usually show up with some delay, so there may be yet another shoe to drop. In a separate analysis, I have concluded that the Rio Grande Project which encompasses Elephant Butte Irrigation District and a similar Irrigation District in El Paso County, Texas, is approximately 25 percent efficient, which is very low. Recent changes in administration of the Rio Grande Project have put even more reliance on EBID’s aquifer, and a settlement with the Office of the State Engineer that seems to authorize greater than historical groundwater usage in EBID may now be of concern to the state.
A change in the way the plan update is organized will be a closer integration of the 12 major river and groundwater basins (see map insert) into the body of the report. Looking at areas from a hydrologic as well as jurisdictional perspective is becoming increasingly common in other states and makes a lot of sense but presents implementation challenges as there are no basin water administrative agencies. But in most cases there are no agencies with authority over each of the 16 formally defined water regions either. It is perhaps hoped that those with authority over part of a River Basin or Water Region will work with neighboring entities to implement strategies. That does happen in New Mexico, but on a long river like the Rio Grande or Pecos, a large number of entities is involved.
The ISC will request feedback from the public. Those with a strong interest may join a discussion group I organized by sending an email to NMStateWaterPlanfirstname.lastname@example.org. It is likely that some of the groups within the Sierra Club and the Rio Grande Chapter as a whole will provide feedback to the ISC.
Participation is an opportunity to influence what is in the plan, and to learn a lot about the complexity of water issues and competing interests in New Mexico.
An estimate of the depletion (use that actually consumes rather than simply uses and returns) by category for 2005 is shown in the bar chart above. The Office of the State Engineer does not record and report water related to the oil and gas industry, so that row is shown as a blank. Notice that the public water supply depletes a relatively small amount of water in New Mexico. In general about half of municipal water withdrawn is treated and returned or recycled within the water system (it makes no difference to the State Water Budget if treated effluent is returned to the river for use downstream or recycled within the originating water system). Within municipal water systems, outdoor uses are the main contributors to depletion, and that is where conservation efforts should be focused.
One hopes that the extensive resources at New Mexico universities and our national labs will be brought to bear on New Mexico’s water challenges, especially in the area of agriculture, the largest water user. A Chapter on Research Initiatives would be a useful chapter in the Plan Update.
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