Mixed Messages on New Mexico’s Water Supplies
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials say that because of above-average mountain snowpack along the Colorado-New Mexico border, this summer farmers and cities along New Mexico’s Río Grande river system, including the Río Chama, can expect a full allotment of water. They cautioned that their forecast, which was also based on soil moisture and climate predictions, is a guess and that things can change.
The Sangre de Cristos near Santa Fe, the Pecos River Basin and other mountains farther south have had below-average snowpack due to a hot, dry March and “flash drought.” Months of high temperatures with little rain have left the eastern plains and parts of southern New Mexico quite dry. Still recuperating from an unprecedented 36 months of drought that peaked in 2013, almost half of the state remains abnormally dry, although that’s a major improvement over conditions last year.
After looking at future demand and variability in rainfall, along with existing rights, traditional uses, population estimates, economic trends and community development, water managers are projecting significant regional shortages of drinking water and irrigation supplies in New Mexico over the next five years, except in the San Juan Basin in the northwest. They say that in drought years in the Middle Río Grande Valley—the state’s most populated area, where agriculture uses about two-thirds of the water— the river and groundwater pumping will only be able to meet half of the demand.
State Water Plan
The New Mexico Water Resources Institute at New Mexico State University is coordinating different components of a Statewide Water Assessment. State and federal agencies and educational institutions are providing data in areas such as evapotranspiration, crop consumptive use, groundwater recharge and stream flow.
Water managers in 16 water-planning districts in New Mexico have created regional plans that identify gaps in water supplies, as well as possible solutions. The Interstate Stream Commission recently adopted the final two plans. The Office of the State Engineer and the ISC are expected to issue a comprehensive statewide plan in about a year, updating New Mexico’s first water plan from 2003.
Society of Professional Journalists Gives New Mexico ISC National ‘Award’
The Society of Professional Journalists has given its annual award for “most secretive government agency or elected official” to the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. The award is intended to highlight the importance of journalists’ access to (what is supposed to be) public information.
The ISC has seemingly increased its secrecy since the proposal of the $500-million Gila River diversion project. The ISC and the quasi-governmental agency it created, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, have been the leading proponents and facilitators of the project. More than $10 million of $100 million in federal subsidies has already been spent.
The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, as well as the commission’s former director, Norman Gaume, have accused the ISC of presenting faulty data to the public. The ISC has allegedly refused to explain the source of water use data, insisting that its numbers are accurate without any supporting evidence.
A bipartisan bill in the state Legislature to make the agency more accountable in its spending on the diversion was opposed by the ISC and the CAP Entity. The bill died in the Senate Finance Committee. In its testimony, the ISC asserted that the time it would take for the agency to produce answers to the questions in the bill (demonstrate that the proposed project is technically feasible; quantify the amount of water the project could produce and who would use it; provide an engineering estimate of the project’s cost and a plan to pay for it) would cause New Mexico to miss the federal deadline for the project.
Pojoaque Basin Water System Gradually Moves Forward
Litigation in the Aamodt case, initiated 51 years ago to delineate water rights between the Pueblos and residents living within the Pojoaque-Nambé-Tesuque stream system north of Santa Fe, could continue for at least several years.
Two settlement agreements have been signed since 2010, and a final court decree will be issued on Sept. 15. That decree could be subject to an appeal. The settlement could be undone if a $253-million regional water system, scheduled to begin construction in 2018, does not meet its requirement of being substantially completed by 2024. The Bureau of Reclamation’s final Environmental Impact Statement for the water system is expected in June, followed by a record of decision detailing how the water system will be built. Taos County has protested the planned transfer of 1,752 acre-feet of groundwater from the Top of the World Farm in Taos County, so that an equal amount can be diverted from the Río Grande. The State Engineer’s decision on whether to approve the transfer is expected this summer.
The Bureau of Reclamation, the water system’s major funder (along with the state and Santa Fe County), has awarded a four-year, $91.9-million design and construction contract to the firm CDM Smith. The New Mexico State Legislature has yet to set aside money to go toward construction.
The water system would serve about 9,200 customers. It is intended to reduce reliance on groundwater so that the aquifer does not become depleted. It would employ up to 193 miles of underground pipeline, large storage tanks, chlorination buildings and power lines at various locations, such as the former Tesuque Flea Market site next to the Santa Fe Opera.
Water Infrastructure Funding
The USDA’s Water and Environmental (WEP) program has been vital to the sustainability of rural communities. Since 2012, the agency has provided $81.6 million in grants and loans for dozens of small water and wastewater projects in 17 New Mexico counties. Rural community water systems such as the Entranosa Water Cooperative, which covers 280 square miles in Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties, serving about 8,500 people, may soon lose this federal support because of the Trump administration’s proposed elimination of the program. The Entranosa cooperative obtained low-interest USDA loans from 2003 to 2010 to buy about 1,600 acre-feet, giving it control of wells it needs to serve clients with clean drinking water and plan for growth.
The president has suggested that rural communities use private financing or— despite proposing to drastically cut the EPA’s budget—the EPA State Revolving Fund, managed in New Mexico by the state’s Environment Department. That fund usually goes to larger water systems, and it requires a shorter payback time than the USDA’s program.
Congressman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., has reintroduced the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act. The legislation would provide nearly $35 billion annually to modernize U.S. water infrastructure. It would increase funding for small-scale technical assistance and provide grants to communities such as Entranosa.
The American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 report on America’s Infrastructure states that New Mexico needs approximately $1.1 billion in water improvements over the next 20 years.
City of Santa Fe Unveils Rain Garden
A new “rain garden” on West Alameda, across from Sicomoro Street, will harvest large quantities of stormwater, while preventing erosion and reducing pollution.
With the Santa Fe Watershed Association’s leadership and the efforts of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The RainCatcher, Southwest Urban Hydrology, and with support from Wells Fargo Bank, the City of Santa Fe hosted the garden’s unveiling on April 8. “This is a classic example of a successful public-private partnership,” Mayor Javier Gonzales said.
The rock-plated, compost-infused infiltration-basin is part of a series of similar structures that make up the Santa Fe River Demonstration Rain Gardens project, which have been installed over the last several years under the guidance of the SFWA. The structures reduce common stormwater pollutants from directly entering the Santa Fe River and its tributaries. The goal of this larger “green infrastructure” project is to absorb 300,000 gallons of water per year. Andy Otto, the association’s president said, “We must allow the precipitation that falls on our watershed to stay in our watershed and infiltrate down to the aquifers from whence our wells draw. These aquifers become an insurance policy for part of our future water source.”
Widespread impervious “grey infrastructure,” such as concrete, asphalt and rooftops, has taken its toll on every urban watershed. “As our urban footprint has grown, unmanaged runoff has created enormous damage, not only in our river but also within our arroyo systems,” the city’s River and Watershed coordinator, Melissa McDonald, said. “We should see every storm as a resource.”
EyeonWater: An App for Santa Fe Water Customers
Santa Fe’s residential water use, thanks to low-flow toilets and other water-saving devices, along with a general awareness of the need to conserve, is about 59 gallons per person per day, well below the 80 to 100 gallons used by people in other areas of the United States.
EYEOnWater, a new app promoted by the City of Santa Fe’s Water Division, gives the city’s customers more information and control about how they use water and allows them to interact with the Water Division. People can now find out how much their household uses, when usage is high, and be alerted to a leak. Gardeners can now see how much their garden is using. To download, visit eyeonwater.com or follow the link on savewatersantafe.com
Santa Fe Water Conservation and Treatment
In the arid Southwest, water conservation has become a part of the collective consciousness. Low-flow toilets and plumbing fixtures along with xeriscaping have significantly reduced residential water usage. The City of Santa Fe also recognizes there is a significant potential for additional water savings from commercial customers and is offering a water rebate for any savings over .25 acre-feet of water (81,463 gallons). For information on this, contact Lisa Randall of the Santa Fe Water Conservation Department, 505.467.2000, or visit www.santafenm.gov/water_conservation
One of the most significant opportunities for savings is on commercial cooling towers, which are used in air-conditioning systems found in large commercial buildings. Cooling towers cool by evaporating water and require water to be drained (blow-down) to avoid a buildup of minerals in the tower’s water. A single medium-sized tower will blow-down more than 1 million gallons in a single cooling season.
Technology exists that can greatly reduce the chemicals used in cooling towers and as much as 95 percent of the blow-down water. A local company, New Water Innovations, provides environmentally conscious solutions to a variety of water quality and water conservation issues, including for commercial cooling towers, boilers and contaminated water. The company can be reached at 505.216.1774, www.newwaterinnovations.com
Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority’s “Tree-bate” Program
Trees, while they do require water to survive, actually aid water conservation by providing shade and reducing water loss to evaporation, as well as providing other environmental benefits.
Among the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority’s incentives to help its customers make their landscapes more water-efficient are its “tree-bate” program, which can result in a $100 water bill credit for residential customers and a $500 credit for non-residential customers to help cover the costs of tree care and maintenance, as well as the purchase of trees that use little water. Twenty recommended trees appear in the authority’s xeriscape guide. The authority’s website (www.abcwua.org/Outdoor_Rebates.aspx) provides links for self-guided tours to view mature trees at the UNM main campus and the Río Grande Botanic Garden.
Other water-saving measures customers can use to achieve rebates include xeriscaping yards and using special types of irrigation or rainwater harvesting. Albuquerque’s Water by Numbers watering restrictions is in effect. Watering outside is only allowed two days per week, between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. in April and May, three days per week in the summer, and it is reduced again in the fall until Oct. 31.