Governor dips her finger in water policy

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By Sherry Robinson

Rain and snow drenched our thirsty state and a heavy sky promised more as I sat down to write about William deBuys, the governor, and our water decisions.
Rain is a stage in what deBuys calls the “hydro-illogical cycle.” Drought raises awareness, which accelerates into concern and panic; rain then dampens concern and leads to apathy. We need to work on water all the time, he says, and not just when it’s dry.
New Mexico “will have to live as a state within its water means,” deBuys said during a recent talk before the New Mexico Humanities Council, and that means “some people will lose water.”
The author of “A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the Southwest” is not a fan of New Mexico water laws and their basis in prior appropriation, or who got there first. The concept of prior appropriation served in our agricultural past, but no longer reflect the realities of today. deBuys (pronounced deBWEES) would like a legal or regulatory framework under which users share the pain in the same way acequias parcel out water during dry years.
Drought, he said, is different from other disasters. In a flood or hurricane, everyone’s in the same boat and they pull together. “With drought, we don’t know when it begins or when it ends, which leaves lots of time to reflect on the deficiencies of your neighbors. Drought drives people apart,” he said.
He predicts the movement of water from agriculture to municipalities and industry and urges state policymakers to work out the mechanisms in advance.
The governor announced last week that she wants to concentrate 60 percent of next year’s capital spending on water projects, including $112 million for water infrastructure in communities that ran out of water this year. Another of her priorities is improving water supply reliability through dams and forest restoration.
These warm and fuzzy measures are likely to find support in the Legislature, but then lawmakers submit similar bills year after year. It would be nice to see the governor do some heavier lifting on water issues.
During the last session, Sen. Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, called water “the sleeper issue” of the session. Legislators introduced dozens of water bills, but few made it to the governor’s desk; of those that did, most were about project funding or water quality.
A successful few bills addressed policy: prohibiting watershed district members from detaching their land from the district if the land contributes to the district’s purpose (HB 448); requiring landowners who sell irrigation rights from their property to acquire new water rights if they subdivide instead of drilling domestic wells (SB 479); requiring a water permit before final plat approval of a subdivision of 10 or more houses (SB 480).
In the heavy-lifting category, any bill that called for planning failed, and yet participants in New Mexico First’s Centennial Town Hall ranked water planning first on their list of priorities. Planning is always high on the list of water experts. Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is most often heard to say no to measures he thinks the state can’t afford, asked for $400,000 to update the state’s 16 regional water plans. Even the influential Smith couldn’t keep the bill afloat.
One intriguing bill, SB 482, would have funded a study of water supply and demand by a working group of climatologists, hydrologists, demographers, and economists from UNM, NMSU, and New Mexico Tech. The goal was to predict impacts for the next 20 years and boil that down to a list of five to ten greatest vulnerabilities.
“We will never solve water issues in New Mexico,” deBuys said. “We will always struggle.” But we can manage the struggle.