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NM Legislature Takes Action – Wildfires and Watersheds
A major change in fighting wildfires in New Mexico occurred this year because state senators and representatives raised the issue to the agency directors in Washington, DC. Also, discussion and debate in both the state House and the Senate helped the Office of the State Engineer (OSE) and the Interstate Stream Commission revise their positions on watersheds originating on federally managed public lands. These are big deals, and tangible results are now being seen.
During the Whitewater Baldy Fire in 2012, the NM-based federal forest fire managers stated in writing: “The present tactical plan does not call for the use of air tankers. If the tactical plan is changed and fixed wing aircraft are required, we will request their use.” This is the same answer they had when the Las Conchas Fire in the Jemez raced out of control two years ago.
Two letters from state legislators were sent to NM’s congressional delegation. One highlighted the fire danger to the headwaters of the San Juan-Chama project, which provides a water source for most of north-central NM. The signatures on those letters included eight NM senators and representatives. Copies were sent to the governor’s office, as well as to federal agency directors within NM for the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Copies of the letter regarding House Joint Memorial 24 (HJM24) also went to Sally Jewell, secretary of the Department of Interior and Tom Vilsack, secretary of the Department of Agriculture.
In 2013 we have had aggressive “tactics” by the federal agencies, including use of fixed-wing aircraft, i.e. tankers, including the DC-10 at the Thompson Ridge Fire, and immediate deployment of air tankers on smaller lightning-caused fires in the Sandias outside of Albuquerque.
Evolution of the legislation
HJM24 was introduced for public comment by Rep. Carl Trujillo in January. Being a Joint Memorial, it was intended to include a buy-in from both the House and the Senate. It called for the US government to “develop and implement proactive best management practices to preserve the infrastructure of the San Juan-Chama Project in southern Colorado and all watersheds on federal lands in NM prior to any potential forest fire and resultant debris flow and flooding.” However, prior to presentation to the House Agriculture and Water Resource Committee in early February, major sections of the wording were deleted by John Longworth, chief of the Water Use and Conservation Bureau in the OSE. The “Bill Analysis” detailed the OSE’s position that including the headwaters of watersheds originating on federal lands was too large an undertaking, too costly and time consuming…” The OSE’s alternative was to focus only on the San Juan-Chama project, and instead of considering “proactive best management practices,” the OSE proposed to “prepare a rapid-response plan to mitigate and repair the project’s infrastructure should a damaging fire occur.” Despite this, language in HJM24 was approved that stated the intention to “develop and implement best management practices to reduce and eliminate those risks prior to forest fire, flooding or other disruptions in the watersheds.” Significant discussion took place on why watersheds on federal lands within NM were being excluded, including during the House debate. On Feb. 15, HJM24, as amended, passed with unanimous bipartisan support by the full NM House of Representatives.
This debate and conversation opened the door for ways to include watersheds and fire dangers on National Forests. Rep. Nick Salazar introduced HM64, which stated the need to “minimize the impacts of forest fires on the watershed.” Rep. Salazar limited HM64 to only the Gallinas watershed in his district. Language in HM64 was specific in that it addressed “the identification and implementation of hazardous fuel reduction treatments and post-catastrophic forest fire treatments on US Forest Service properties…”
Rep. Yvette Herrell introduced HM65, which stated, “Requesting the US Forest Service to engage with NM state agencies and local governments in meaningful watershed health planning and management.” Part of HM65 resolved “that state agencies be requested to integrate local, state and tribal watershed plans with those of the Forest Service, the federal Bureau of Land Management, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation.”
The OSE and the ISC, seeing the groundswell of support for these and other water issues, did not alter or oppose either HM64 or HM65. On March 1, both HM64 and HM 65 passed the full House with unanimous bipartisan approval.
US Congressional Letters
These actions led to the two letters sent to each of the US senators and representatives representing NM. The first letter sent was in regard to HM65. It stated in a forthright manner, “It is the view of the NM Legislature that the loss of vegetation, soil and water due to catastrophic wildfires on federal public lands constitutes a menace to the economic welfare of the State of NM.” It further stated that “the NM legislative leadership seeks to integrate local, state and tribal watershed plans” with federal land agencies “in an effort to increase wildfire prevention and watershed rehabilitation funding and projects.”
The second letter was in regard to HJM24, which passed both the full House and the Senate, including the Senate Conservation and Senate Rules committees. This letter stated: “because of recent catastrophic wildfires on public lands that resulted in significant damage to watersheds including through Bandelier National Monument, Cochiti Canyon and Santa Clara Canyon, the San Juan-Chama Project watersheds in southern Colorado are at major risk of similar damage. It is the desire of the NM Legislature that proactive best management practices be initiated prior to any potential wildfire and flooding in the headwaters region for the San Juan-Chama Project.” It further elaborates: “It is imperative that such damage be prevented in advance due to the even higher cost of major repair or replacement for the San Juan-Chama Project infrastructure.”
Recent Legislative and Local Activity
The Joint Interim Water and Natural Resources Committee met on June 10. This 46-member committee includes both representatives and senators and has a Drought Subcommittee. The state engineer, Scott Verhines, and the director of the Interstate Stream Commission, Estévan López, made a presentation before this committee. Of note was discussion on the OSE Active Water Resource Management (AWRM), which “is the term adopted by OSE to emphasize the agencies transition from water permitting and accounting duties… to an increased focus on duties relating to the physical administration of water in our fully appropriated stream systems.” The report encompassed many topics, including the Pecos River Compact Compliance, litigation relating to the 2008 Río Grande Operating Agreement (Elephant Butte and El Paso County, TX), and the Middle Río Grande, the Río Chama Basin and the Colorado River Basin. The Interstate Stream Commission is revising its regional water planning template “to guide plans that will be more compatible with each other and relate to the state water plan.” This topic had been discussed on Feb. 22 before the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee when testimony was presented that “plan templates should be revised to minimize political boundaries and instead address full natural boundaries of watersheds from their headwaters source within federal lands.”
What was not discussed was the damage caused to watershed resources by wildfires on public lands, even as the Tres Lagunas, Thompson Ridge and Silver fires were causing such destruction prior to that June 10 meeting. Since then, a wildfire has erupted in the San Juan River drainage in Colorado. Also lacking was any conversation on the action called for in HJM24, HM65 and HM64, despite HM65 calling for an integration of “local, state and tribal watershed plans.” The committee did decide to go out to four locations within NM as an outreach to hear citizens’ concerns, though they did not even discuss ways to get those local communities to develop or revise their own watershed plans for “integration” with state plans.
In Santa Fe County, County Commissioner Miguel Chávez and County Hydrologist Karen Torres appear to be heading in the right direction. Both are looking into revising and adding to a compilation of divergent watershed plans so that Santa Fe County may have a seat at the table at such time the state and federal land managers convene, as called for in HM65.
The chairman of the Interim Water and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Phil Griego from San José, did show photos of Heron Lake State Park and El Vado Lake State Park taken in April and also after Memorial Day. The water levels are extremely low and pose significant risk to Chama River flows below El Vado Dam, and subsequently the San Juan-Chama Project water supply. Chairman Griego had a member of the NM State Parks called in to offer testimony about similarly low water levels at other state parks. Chairman Griego stated that this situation may be “devastating” for the economies of nearby communities due to decreased recreational use, as well as to the state parks, as they are primarily self-funded as an enterprise operation.
The vice-chairman of the Interim Water and Natural Resources Committee is Rep. George Dodge from Santa Rosa. The chair of the Drought Subcommittee is Sen. Joseph Cervantes from Las Cruces. There is not a need to reinvent the wheel, as the NM Legislature included language towards a positive course of action when it passed HJM24, HM65 and HM64. If you would like to remind them of that or have other comments, perhaps that you like to drink water and don’t like to breathe in the smoke from forest wildfires, it is suggested that you personally contact your local elected officials as well as your state senators and representatives. Thank them for what they’ve done, and remind them that there is much yet to do.
Michael Aune was the expert witness and assisted Rep. Carl Trujillo on the House Floor during debate of HJM24, for which he wrote the original draft. Aune has been asked to serve on the PRC Task Force. He first studied and explored the headwaters of major watersheds as a young man, and began studying wildfires on public lands and their impacts on watersheds. Aune wrote about and moderated community meetings on similar water issues in northern Arizona in the late 1990s. After completing B.S. and M.S. degrees, he was a manager and government executive for 24 years.
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