Thursday, June 8, 2023
All She Wrote

Commentary: Good year for water legislation still slights dams


Water managers got some good news, for a change, as hydrologists for the National Weather Service announced a record snowpack that will deliver more water to the Rio Grande and Pecos rivers. Even though that snowmelt produced a disaster declaration in Sandoval County and could cause some flooding elsewhere, it’s still a blessing.

You know what’s coming next. It’s the big “however.”

However, climate change and drought are still with us. While a good year allows groundwater supplies to recover a bit and irrigation districts will have a better, longer season, they all know they can’t relax.

So it’s encouraging that legislators this year passed and the governor signed some ambitious water bills at a time when they had money to spend.

Senate Bill 9, the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund, was the star of the show.

The bipartisan SB 9 establishes the state’s first dedicated source of recurring funding for conservation without adding new programs or additional bureaucracy. In her budget recommendations, the governor singled out funding for existing state programs to protect communities from wildfire, flood and drought; safeguard water supplies; support rural and agricultural communities; and grow the outdoor recreation economy. Previously, the programs have been unfunded or under-funded. 

SB 9 starts with $100 million for disbursements. The State Investment Council will manage a second, permanent trust fund, with an initial investment of $50 million.

For rural areas, SB 1, the Regional Water System Resiliency Act, will be useful. Small water utilities can create and join regional water authorities to seek funding for repair work and hire people for everything from operations to paperwork required by state and federal entities.

Typically, these small utilities contend with aging infrastructure and rely on volunteers. If they’re behind in their reporting, they can’t apply for state and federal grants.

A related bill, SB 337, authorizes the Interstate Stream Commission to issue loans and grants for regional water planning and develop regulations governing regional water planning entities.

Two bills were long overdue.

SB 57 rescued the Water Trust Fund, which has helped finance dozens of water projects around New Mexico since it was created nearly two decades ago. It distributes about $4 million a year.

The State Investment Council has warned for years that the fund would be drained within 15 years without new money. Lawmakers created the fund in 2006 with $40 million, added $15 million the following year and stopped. The sponsor asked for $250 million and got $100 million.

The Strategic Water Reserve also needed rescuing. Years ago, the nonpartisan Think New Mexico campaigned for a reserve that allowed the state in 2005 to buy and lease water rights to keep rivers flowing and avoid conflicts over endangered species and interstate river compacts. Lawmakers responded.

Since then, the state has used the reserve to acquire water along the Rio Grande, Pecos and San Juan rivers. It hasn’t “achieved its full potential due to inadequate funding,” says Think New Mexico. Supporters hoped for $25 million; last year’s allocation of $15 million has been spent. The budget has $7.5 million, plus another $150,000 in the junior budget bill.

In a year of surplus revenues, we might expect dams to get more money. The State Engineer’s Office has identified more than 70 dams needing repair. SB 195 tried to create a $150 million fund for dam repairs and other infrastructure needs. It died.

The State Engineer got $10 million, plus another $3.4 million previously appropriated for a stalled project, for dam maintenance and improvement.

And the long awaited state water plan got $250,000 in recurring and $500,000 in one-time money, but the State Engineer’s Office, expected to do this and a lot of other water work, remains under-funded and under-staffed, according to the online New Mexico In Depth.

Some wins, some disappointments. Even in a year like this, money, like water, isn’t infinite.



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