The New Mexico Water Dialogue’s 23rd Annual Conference
New Mexico has been officially “water planning” for the past 30 years, ever since legislators in El Paso tried to reach across the border and help themselves to New Mexico groundwater. The battle was decided in court, and the judge said that New Mexico could deny El Paso’s permit to take our water only if we could prove that we needed every drop for ourselves. This inspired the state to establish a process for a state water plan that would shut the door on thirsty neighbors.
The state water plan would be made up of 16 regional water plans, which would include the region’s current and future need for water and its current and future supplies of water. The assumption was that when the regions were put together the total water needs would equal, or as it turned out in many regions, exceed the total water supply. Regional water plans were also to include a “public welfare statement” describing the region’s values and priorities for water.
State law dictated that each region would form a Regional Water Plan Steering Committee that would guide development of the water plan. Some big regions (Middle Río Grande) had water planners, hydrologists, economists and demographers close at hand to help. Small regions (Mora-San Miguel) had lots of on the ground expertise in farmers, ranchers, acequia members, community water system managers, etc.
Big or small, the task was daunting. In the early 1990s the New Mexico Water Dialogue emerged as a forum for water planners and would-be water planners to come together, learn from each other and support their mutual efforts to plan for their water futures. Based on inclusion, equality and respect, the initial 25-member board of directors for the Dialogue included the full diversity of the state—geographically, culturally and economically. There were professionals and those with generations of local knowledge. There were big irrigation districts and small acequia communities. There were environmental activists, tribal members, business and industry people, ranchers and even a few elected officials. The Dialogue still lives today, with a board just as diverse and lively, and continues to serve as a grassroots advisory group to the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), the body responsible for water planning.
Each January the Water Dialogue holds a water conference at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, chosen for its fine facility and its much-anticipated lunch. Around 125 people attend, and the diversity mirrors the board. There are panels and plenty of back-and-forth in the audience. This year’s theme was Toward a More Relevant State Water Plan, to complement the state’s current revision of the state water plan. To tackle the question the Dialogue tried a different format. In addition to a morning keynote and a panel of water experts, professional and lay, the afternoon was devoted to 12 breakout groups, followed by remarks and observations from the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) staff and Director Deborah Dixon.
Each board member chose a topic of particular interest to him or her and facilitated that breakout session. Here is a sample of the 12 topics:
· How can the state water plan be relevant to tribes?
· What kinds of outreach and education programs are available to engage people, including youth, in water issues?
· How can we balance water protection and economic development?
· What role can the state water plan play in resolving inter-basin transfer issues?
· Should the state water plan address environmental and cultural issues and, if so, how?
· How can we make the new state water plan as useful and credible as possible?
The conversations were lively and wide-ranging, reflecting the Dialogue ethic that we are all experts when it comes to water planning, that we all have experience and passion to bring to the table. But running through the discussions some common themes emerged:
· Building relationships: To plan for a balanced, equitable water future, all users—tribal, environmental, urban, agricultural, etc.—must be included in the planning process. The state water plan can be a forum for building trust and respect among competing water uses. This requires open communication that is accessible and inviting to all.
· Quality of Life: In New Mexico our quality of life depends on our relationship to water. Economic development and water are necessarily bound together. The challenge is to maintain a good quality of life while we both conserve and consume our natural resources. Water planning must honor and protect our communities’ cultural, religious and social values.
· Data Management: There are many public and private water use and management entities in New Mexico, each gathering data, making policy, developing projects. It is critical that water planning at the state and local level be a collaborative effort, where information and priorities are shared. The state water plan should provide comprehensive, reliable technical data for decision-makers at local and state levels.
· Public Engagement: Why aren’t more New Mexicans concerned about their water future? There may be multiple reasons. The topic may be too complicated, too scary, too boring. It may feel abstract rather than personal. For young people it may not seem relevant or “cool.” The use of social media, water fairs, school field trips, internships and mentoring opportunities with water groups and agencies may reach new audiences.
· Conflict Resolution: There are inevitably conflicts among regions. An upstream region identifies water supplies to fulfill its needs that the downstream region is counting on. Water-rights transfers from one basin to another set communities against each other, and regions against the state. For reliable state and regional water plans there needs to be a mechanism for resolving these conflicts. Not all parties will be happy, but the process needs to be fair and accepted.
· Ongoing planning processes: Water planning should be an ongoing process, not the start-stop pattern of recent years. Regional water planners need to set priorities, evaluate projects, seek funding continually in order to implement their water plans.
· Funding: Addressing all the issues identified above requires funding—water planning, data gathering and dissemination, communication, outreach, education, conflict resolution and relationship building. The Legislature needs to take water planning seriously and commit sufficient funds on an annual basis.
At the end of the day, Deborah Dixon and her ISC staff reflected on what they had heard and its relevance to the state water plan update underway. The relationship between the Dialogue and the ISC allows for mutual exploration of ways that both the regional and state water plans can reflect the diverse interests of New Mexico.
For more information, including summaries of each of the breakout groups, see: allaboutwatersheds.org/new-mexico-water-dialogue
Lucy Moore, mediator, facilitator and author, is co-founder of the New Mexico Water Dialogue.