A Constructive Tool to Protect Watersheds

 

Michael Aune

 

The state of New Mexico appears to place a greater emphasis on the infrastructure and storage for the delivery of water than on the preservation and protection of the water supply, such as headwaters and aquifers. Of the $89 million in the state’s capital outlay bill designated for water projects signed by Gov. Martínez in mid-March, only $6 million is designated for watershed restoration and forest thinning. That is less than 7 percent for efforts to protect and preserve the sources of water.

 

During the 2014 New Mexico Legislative Session, the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) provided an analysis of the Water Trust Board. The LFC’s program evaluator, Jeff Canney, discussed Report #13-12, before the Senate Finance Committee and Chairman John Arthur Smith on January 23. The LFC has statutory responsibility to examine laws governing financial operations of the state and its political subdivisions, including policies and costs related to the proper functioning of such government entities. The LFC is authorized to suggest changes to the Legislature.

 

This report quotes from the NM State Water Plan of 2003, stipulating that “The State will plan and prioritize water infrastructure improvements to get supplies to where they will serve the greatest good in facilitating economic development and in serving existing and future populations.” Questions remain though about the functional “supply,” which, in my view, is underfunded in this budget despite other requirements enacted in previous legislative sessions.

 

In 2001, the Water Project Finance Act (WPFA) created the Water Trust Board (WTB). Its purpose is to “provide funding for water-use efficiency, resource conservation and protection, and fair distribution and allocation of water.” The NM Finance Authority was designated as the administrator. In 2013, Scott Verhines, the state engineer, became chairman of the WTB. The Office of the State Engineer (OSE) has major responsibility for water adjudication and allocation issues within New Mexico.

 

On page 13 of the LFC report, types of projects are listed for funding eligibility established by the WPFA. Of significance is that this includes funding eligibility for “the restoration and management of watersheds,” and “flood prevention.” It appears, however, that 93 percent of the budget funding just signed by the governor is mostly for “storage and conveyance of water to end users,” and “conservation, recycling, treatment or reuse of water,” which are indeed important.

 

In previous articles (Green Fire Times, July and September, 2013), wildfires and their destructive impact on headwaters were discussed, including how catastrophic flooding impacted some of the water sources that would supply the proposed projects. During the 2013 legislative session, HJM24 and HM65 were unanimously passed, and as a result, two letters were sent to each of the five members of our New Mexico US Congressional delegation. Rep. Carl Trujillo’s effort with HJM24 directly addressed the water supply at its origin, though it was amended at the request of the OSE. State Engineer Verhines’ view has changed since then, in part because Rep. Yvette Herrell’s HM65 then restored those same headwaters issues and sought “to integrate local, state and tribal watershed plans…” with those of the federal lands where the headwaters originate.

 

In his Nov. 15, 2013, letter to Canney, Verhines wrote, “The OSE suggests the report indicate that… regional water plan… updates will reflect the region’s unique needs as identified and prioritized by local representatives. A paradigm shift to regionally driven initiatives will engender greater natural resource management, decrease duplication of efforts and will promote capital-outlay reform.”

 

This opens the door for we “local representatives” to continue the “paradigm shift” so we can “engender greater natural resource management.”

 

Other related key points brought out in the LFC report include:

  • Page 22: “The supply of water provided by the Canadian River is one risk variable….” The San Juan-Chama Project, which supplies a significant source of water to New Mexico, was not addressed in Canney’s report.
  • Page 23: “In 2006, the Water Trust Fund was constitutionally established… for the purpose of securing a supply of clean and safe water…”., and
  • Page 26: The WTB and regional water plans “…mandate from the 2003 Legislature… to increase the supply of water.”

 

The precedent has been established regarding water supply as a priority, though that has not seen major funding. Therefore, I’ve submitted to LFC two items to be added under “Recommendations” in Report #13-12. First, on page 27, “The WTB should place an emphasis on the supply and source of water resources (headwaters, watersheds, aquifers) that is equal to the emphasis on infrastructure that stores and delivers that water supply.” Secondly, on page 10, “The Legislature should require that the supply and source of water, including the headwaters of watersheds, and the preservation and restoration of same, is an equal priority to the capital funding programs for other water infrastructure projects.”

 

These are included for consideration and your support to address this important issue of water supply from its point of origin. Spending and prioritization on infrastructure as discussed in LFC Report #13-12 and the recently signed capital outlay budget is moot if there is no water to supply said systems.

 

 

Michael Aune explored the headwaters of Western watersheds for over 40 years and began studying wildfire’s destructive impact on watersheds after living through the 1988 Wyoming wildfires. He has testified before legislative committees and recently served on the PRC Wildfire Task Force.

 

 

 

 

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