Corrales’ Mike Hamman, recently retired as executive director of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, is now point-man for New Mexico’s long-term water planning. From now to well into the future, availability of water for farming, gardening, landscaping and even drawing a drink from your kitchen tap will be influenced by a plan to be developed by the Office of the State Engineer, which Hamman now heads. Before he retired from the MRGCD December 31, he was tapped to be Governor Michelle Luajn Grisham’s senior water advisor. He continues in that role, but he has also replaced the previous State Engineer, John D’Antonio, who resigned in December as well.
The N.M. Senate unanimously confirmed Hamman as State Engineer February 11. The process to develop a 50-year plan for New Mexico has yet to be described, but the product is expected to be finalized during the next two years. To better understand the water resource challenges ahead, the Interstate Stream Commission is conducting a 50-Year Plan that assesses the impacts of climate change. It aims at determining the resilience of New Mexico communities to these changes, and proposes adaptation strategies, where needed.
Development of the 50-Year Water Plan is occurring in four phases. Phase 1 of the plan began in January 2021 and ended March 1, 2021. That phase involved assessing the process itself with the New Mexico Water Dialogue, coordinating experts with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources (NMBGMR), and building consensus on approaches to the plan.
Phase 2, referred to as “The Leap Ahead Analysis,” ended June 30. The purpose of the analysis was for experts, led by the bureau, to compile scientific information about the impact of climate change on New Mexico communities and water supplies.
Phase 3, the outreach and assessment phase, called for the Interstate Stream Commission to host meetings with citizens of New Mexico to explain the findings of the “Leap Ahead Analysis,” and to interview citizens to determine the degree of resilience New Mexico communities have to the challenges posed by climate change. It was scheduled to conclude in January 2022.
Other partners in the effort include the US Army Corps of Engineers, the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute and the State Indian Affairs Department.
During Phase 4 of the plan, scheduled for spring 2022 to July 2022, the ISC and collaborating authorities are supposed to produce, review and finalize a 50-Year Water Plan that will contain guidelines for preparing for climate change, adopting efficient water usage strategies, and improving water resiliency throughout the state.
The N.M. Bureau of Geology and the Interstate Stream Commission shared summary-level scientific results from the “Leap Ahead Analysis” during their outreach meeting on July 21, 2021. (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXXX No.12 August 7, 2021 “In 50 Years, Will Your Well Dry Up Due to Climate Change?”)
The final phase of the planning process will include a “resilience assessment” for water users in various sectors. The report due this summer will be presented in the format typically used by the National Academy of Sciences.
Shortly after Mayor JoAnne Roake was elected, she established a Corrales Water Advisory Board, which was to submit its recommendations the following spring. (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXXVII No.12 August 25, 2018 “Impressive Credentials for Water Advisory Board.”)
Corraleños produced a 40-year water plan in 2004. (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXIII No.21 December 18, 2004 “40-Year Water Plan Could Change Corrales’ Scenic, ‘Oasis’ Look.”)
Village officials then “accepted” the 40-year water plan which could, if rigorously implemented, drastically change the community’s appearance.
Among many other provisions, the plan called for an “aggressive program” to remove elm and Russian olive trees from Corrales, while exempting “large, specimen trees.”
It also stated that “xeriscaping is encouraged, but is not mandatory,” for existing residences east of Loma Larga, and that “xeriscaping is recommended for all municipal and commercial locations,” although “existing large specimen trees and mature plantings may remain in all areas.”
At their October 26, 2004 meeting, Village Council members formally accepted the plan produced by the appointed Corrales Water Advisory Commission over the previous two and a half years. The immediate effect of that acceptance was supposed to be that the plan would be submitted to the State Engineer’s Office as an outline for how Corrales intended to proceed in balancing its water needs to available supply. But that may not have happened; at any rate, its recommendations may have been overtaken by other developments.
In any event, one of the effects was a policy that encouraged xeriscaping at all future municipal and commercial developments. Water conservation in general, and xeriscaping in particular, are worthwhile objectives, but the probable result of such a Village policy was to transform the appearance of “downtown” Corrales Road into a gravel-and-cactus streetscape.
Water shortages already being experienced in New Mexico are driven by both a multi-decade climate cycle and a warming climate. In the coming half-century, the Bureau of Geology reported the average temperature in New Mexico is expected to increase by 5-7 degrees Fahrenheit. Even so, average precipitation is expected to stay relatively constant.
But the warmer climate will accelerate processes such as evaporation and transpiration that remove water from the ecosystem and environment. Therefore, a hotter climate, even with constant levels of precipitation, will further strain New Mexico’s water supplies.
And the hotter climate will impact the environment in other ways as well. A warmer climate will stress vegetation and allow fires to proliferate, thereby reducing plant cover in New Mexico biomes.
This biome damage makes the environment less resilient to erosion and flooding, meaning that storms will cause greater environmental damage. The damage could disrupt normal drainage systems and damage water infrastructure, further straining water resources. Water quality will decrease as well, the study indicates, with the increase of water temperature and potential growth of bacteria in water supplies.
This climate change analysis demonstrates the need for the state to continue to assess its vulnerabilities to climate change. The ongoing drought in the state causes short-term water shortages that strain farmers and New Mexico residents. But water concerns are unlikely to go away as New Mexico becomes hotter and dryer in the coming decades.
In the face of a serious drought throughout New Mexico, officials at the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA) have taken steps to conserve water and to conduct studies about the impact of climate change on the future water supply in the state.
Last year, N.M. Interstate Stream Commission Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen explained that New Mexico was enduring a second year of water shortage caused by severe drought. In 2020, poor mountain snowpack and reduced runoff water created a severe drought situation. The issue was then compounded by a poor monsoon season the following year.
Those water shortages created problems for New Mexico’s water-sharing agreements with neighboring states. One such agreement, the Rio Grande Compact, was signed by New Mexico, Texas and Colorado in 1938; it sets out the water-sharing promises between the three states.
The agreement operates through water delivery debits and credits in which states are held responsible for delivering the correct amount of water “payments” to other states. Colorado is expected to deliver water to New Mexico, and New Mexico is expected to discharge water to Elephant Butte reservoir and from there, deliver water to southern New Mexico and Texas. Currently, New Mexico is in compliance with its delivery requirements up to an “accrued debit” of 200,000 acre-feet of water.
The 2020 drought was severe enough to warrant the release of stored Rio Grande Compact debit water from the El Vado Reservoir to supplement Rio Grande flows. New Mexico is required to retain water in storage to the extent of its accrued debit in deliveries to Elephant Butte Reservoir, and it may not store any Rio Grande water when Elephant Butte storage is low.
Schmidt-Petersen explained that the water shortages last summer developed rapidly and that without releasing the debit water, the Rio Grande would have dried up at Albuquerque and farmers would have struggled through the rest of the irrigation season.
Water officials hoped that the depleted water stores and severe drought situation last summer would be resolved over the year with modifications in MRGCD operations, a strong fall rainy period, and better snowpack in 2021. Although the MRGCD made the intended modifications to its operations, the rest of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 continued to be dry, leading to further water supply concerns this past summer.
That problem was compounded by reduced availability of water from the San Juan-Chama River system which also has decreased in recent years.
New Mexico began 2020 with a water debit of 40,000 acre-feet, meaning the state was meeting its water-sharing obligations but that 40,000 acre-feet of Rio Grande water would need to be stored upstream before any water could be stored for later release to the middle valley. But the severe drought last summer and subsequent debit water release yielded an increased water debit for 2021 of 96,000 acre-feet.
No snowmelt runoff was stored in New Mexico during the 2020-2021 winter because Elephant Butte remained low, New Mexico had a 96,000 acre-foot accrued debit, and the 2021 snowmelt runoff was poor. This meant that New Mexico began summer 2021 in a drought with little water storage.
Schmidt-Peterson said New Mexico has not experienced this degree of water deficit since the early 1980s. This makes the recent drought unprecedented in terms of modern New Mexico water policy.
Despite that, there has been little discussion of revising the water-sharing terms in the Rio Grande Compact. In general, water shortages lead to litigation over the terms of preexisting interstate compacts, not the adoption of new water agreements. Schmidt-Petersen suggests that such litigation is the more common negotiation strategy because renegotiation is difficult: the current Rio Grande Compact was adopted into state law by New Mexico, Colorado and Texas before also becoming federal law. This long legislative process makes it unlikely that water agreements can be completely reworked and replaced in times of water shortages because different parties will disagree about the terms of the renegotiation.
The Rio Grande Compact has three cases of litigation in its history. First in the 1950s, Texas pursued legal action against New Mexico over the operations of El Vado Reservoir. Then in 1966, New Mexico and Texas took legal action against Colorado contending that the state had not adhered to its water-sharing agreements.
The third case began in 2014 when Texas filed a lawsuit against New Mexico, claiming that New Mexico had misused the water released from Elephant Butte that was supposed to be delivered to Texas.
Instead of revising the Rio Grande Compact, agencies like the ISC, MRGCD, and ABCWUA currently implement strategies to protect farmers from droughts, reduce water usage among New Mexico residents and within the river system, improve water deliveries to Elephant Butte, and protect endangered species and the environment that depend on the water supply.
Last fall, the MRGCD and ISC notified farmers of the ongoing drought crisis and advised that farmers in the Middle Rio Grande District refrain from farming this year. These early notifications provided farmers with time to plan their 2021 growing season accordingly.
According to Corrales’ Mike Hamman, chief executive and engineer for the Conservancy District, the MRGCD has also implemented an annual program in which farmers can choose to leave fields unseeded in exchange for a payment during drought years. He said this program has been used to leave 1,000 acres of farmland fallowed.
More generally, the MRGCD is applying for grants to fund improvement to water infrastructure throughout the district to improve water efficiency. And the MRGCD has helped fund the Upper Rio Grande Basin Study that aims to address the impacts of climate change on water resources.
Carlos Bustos, the program manager for water conservation at the ABCWUA, affirms that his agency is also doing its part to mitigate the risks of water shortages in the Albuquerque area.
Given the current drought, Albuquerque residents are no longer using surface water to meet the water needs of the metropolitan area. Instead, the City of Albuquerque is drawing on water in the aquifer to meet its citizens’ needs.
Bustos explains that water usage per capita in the region is below the water target set by ABCWUA, meaning that Albuquerque residents are using the groundwater resources responsibly.
This responsible water usage means that the ABCWUA has not observed reductions to the aquifer greater than their models predicted.
This good news, however, does not mean that water conservation efforts cannot be further improved. According to Bustos, the authority has adopted strategies to further reduce water consumption in Bernalillo County. The program focuses on community outreach and education about water usage in the community. It conducts frequent outreach to the top 5-10 percent of residential water users in the city and encourages these residents to cut back usage.
Bustos pointed out that the authority provides free consultations and 40-50 audits each week to help residents become more water efficient. It also provides an online educational training course that informs residents about ways to cut back on their water usage. The course includes lessons on how residents can repair and re-landscape their yards to be more efficient. The class has had more than 600 participants to date, and the ABCWUA records that the residents who have attended, indeed have cut back their water usage.
When these outreach efforts fail to reduce water usage, the authority may issue warnings and fines. Bustos explains that the ABCWUA tries to avoid these punitive actions and restrictive measures by promoting education as much as possible.
The authority has also entered water-sharing agreements with the MRGCD in the past in which stored water is released in the Albuquerque region to extend the irrigation season for farmers. Bustos says that more of these agreements may be implemented in the future to supplement the region’s water vulnerabilities. The ABCWUA continues to consider new programs that encourage water conservation in Bernalillo County.
In the short term, Bustos is hopeful that the rest of the year can be endured without further restrictions. But water authorities fear that New Mexico will experience ongoing water concerns in the long term due to climate change.
Corrales’ 40 Year Water Plan in 2004 had a set of 15 recommendations, a number of which were controversial. The Corrales water plan recommended laws and voluntary programs to encourage water conservation by homeowners. It would also force Village officials to consider water availability before committing to new public facilities and before approving private developments.
Among those are removal of elm and Russian olive trees throughout the village, encouraging xeriscaping in the business district, encouraging installation of water meters on domestic and irrigation wells and not encouraging grey water re-use and rain harvesting.
Seven pages of recommendations contain the following:
- “Ordinances to Insure Adequate Water Availability. Planning and Zoning should confirm that all new commercial, municipal and residential construction has adequate water permits and/or rights. This would include requiring well permits from the Village for all new or replacement wells.
“A two-tiered structure of permit fees would be to permit replacement wells at a relative small fee, new wells at a standard fee, and fee waiver for replacement wells where residents are 65 years or older. Adding septic permit fees should also be investigated by Planning and Zoning.
- “Xeriscaping and Green Zone. Xeriscaping should be practiced throughout Corrales consistent with horticultural legacy, history and topography of the various areas in Corrales.
“West of Loma larga, in keeping with the Village Comprehensive Plan and topography, xeriscaping should be mandatory for all new construction and strongly encouraged for existing residences.
“East of Loma Larga, in keeping with the Comprehensive Plan and historical precedent, xeriscaping is encouraged but is not mandatory.
“Municipal and commercial locations… existing large specimen trees and mature plantings may remain in all areas.…
“Water usage based on location will be controversial. Further, continued water use for the ‘green zone’ east of Loma Larga will not significantly affect consumption due to aquifer recharge.”
A recommendation against rain water harvesting and re-use of domestic grey water which appeared in the draft plan has been deleted from the final. It read: “Rain water harvesting, grey water reuse and low-flow appliance should not be encouraged in Corrales. The Village water system is currently almost entirely based on individual wells and septic systems. None of the above actions would result in meaningful reductions in water consumption.
- “Bosque Restoration. Develop an aggressive program to reduce evapotranspiration water losses from the bosque by removing non-native phreatophytes (especially salt cedar, Russian olives and Chinese elms).
- “Village Wide Removal of Phreatophytes. Develop an aggressive program to reduce evapotranspiration water losses throughout the village by removing non-native phreatophytes (especially salt cedar, Chinese elms and Russian olives).
“Large specimen trees may be exempted. Prohibit planting of these plants by residents and advise area nurseries and other outlets.
- “Village Wide Water Quality Testing Program. Implement a village wide water quality testing program. Each year, sample a percentage of the wells geographically distributed throughout the village. Measuring static well levels at the same time should be considered. Data will be incorporated in a data base that will provide the Village with current data and trends on our water status.
- “Village Well Metering. Implement a voluntary well and ditch water metering program for each residence. This will help the Village determine what actual water usage is. If implemented, this will help evaluate the effectiveness of planned conservation programs. Without measurements, water conservation progress and effectiveness will be difficult to assess.
“Actual water use is also a defensible position against reduction of permits and certainly of rights. A program that includes Village education will be required. this program should be voluntary and made mandatory if State mandated or as part of a severe drought plan.
“Installing well metering could cost $500 or more per residence. This cost, if borne by the resident, will not be well-received. Further, the metering could be viewed as a first step that could lead to usage restrictions and even water usage [reduction]. However, any resident who believes they may have ground water rights should have a well meter in order to properly establish those rights with the State Engineer.
- “Irrigation of Residential and Commercial Property. Implement a program that maximizes watering effectiveness while minimizing water consumption. Restrictions on time of day that spray watering is permitted should be implemented.
“Drip/spray watering education should be developed that emphasizes maximum water conservation through optimal duration and timing of watering, use of drip wherever possible, selection of large-drop, lower pressure spray whenever possible, careful design and monitoring of system to ensure only intended areas are watered.
“Minimizing the use of water for irrigation is a complex task that may not be well understood by village residents.”
This recommendation has the following “Action Required” advice: “Enact ordinances restricting time of day for spray watering. Require a permit for new underground irrigation systems.”
- “Irrigation Efficiency for Cultivated Fields. Implement a program that maximizes irrigation effectiveness while minimizing water consumption. Incentives and/or education for laser leveled fields irrigated by flooding should be considered.
- “Improve Well Drilling Regulations. Establish well drilling requirements that minimize water contamination from ground water. This includes proper capping and casing sealing. This could be implemented through a Corrales Well Permit process. Well drilling requirements in New Mexico do not minimize exposure to ground water contamination.… While we believe that village wells are not contaminated, there is a significant contamination exposure. Implementing this program will increase the cost of new or re-drilled wells.
- “Adult Education Outreach Programs. Establish adult education outreach programs that include topics not otherwise specified above.…
- “Student and Child Outreach and Education Programs. Establish children and school education outreach programs that include topics not otherwise specified above. Topics would include how the river affects the water in our homes, the inter-relationship of water and farming, the river, and wells.
- “Legislative Impact. Establish a response system to the citizens on legislative issues or rule making that affects the Village or residents. Currently there is no timely way to determine what changes may affect all citizens in Corrales in relationship to water.…
- “Well Level Measuring. Implement a voluntary program to regularly measure static well levels in selected areas in the village. The number of wells required, their depths and their locations would have to be determined based on a review of the village’s aquifers.
“These measurements may be required as often as weekly. The information would be stored in a database that will provide the Village the status and the trends of our aquifer levels.… A program administrator will be required to co-ordinate the program.
- “Maintain Open Space and Preserve Farmland. Implement programs to maintain open space and farmlands in Corrales. By maintaining open space and farmlands,fewer wells and septic systems are required. slow percolation into the aquifer from this land also improves water quality.
- “Establish Active Water Management for Recreation Center. Install and maintain a system that monitors rainfall and/or sensors that override automatic watering systems (well-supplied).
Corrales’ John Brown was a co-founder and director of the N.M Water Dialogue and long time participant in water policy discussions.
A preface to the recommendations in “Making the Case for Change: seeking solutions to important New Mexico water problems” states the problem this way. “New Mexico is faced with, but has not faced up to, important water resource limitations: downstream delivery obligations, federally-mandated requirements, and state-permitted water uses and authorizations that substantially exceed sustainable supplies.
“Without action to address articulated problems, New Mexico’s current and future water supplies, as well as our pocketbooks, are at risk.
“Specific significant flaws identified from the most recent attempt at regional water planning were the impetus for 2017 House Memorial 1. The memorial requested the Interstate Stream Commission to convene a task force to address these flaws. That has yet to take place. In response to this memorial, however, a working group of volunteer water planners prepared this proposal on how New Mexico should address its water issues.”
The working group’s recommendations noted that “These solutions are presented to seek the necessary leadership and pressure by the Executive and the Legislature to cause them to be implemented. All of these problems and solutions have been raised repeatedly, most recently as the ISC’s December 2017 Town Hall. But progress has not been made or has stalled. Financial support for water planning has been consistently far less than in neighboring states. Funding, staffing, water resources data collection, and the capacity of agencies to deal with New Mexico’s water problems are all currently diminished from previously inadequate levels, while, at the same time, our water supplies are facing increasing pressures.
“One solution —administration of New Mexico’s water use to keep it within interstate stream compact limits — Active Water Resource Management (AWRM) became state law in 2003 and was upheld by a 2012 N.M. Supreme Court decision. The Office of the State Engineer (OSE) has not met its commitments to the Legislature to make substantial progress. Another solution — making water planning effective — needs emphasis because the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) treats water planning as an end in itself, rather than a thoughtful means to seek and implement solutions to problems.
“The N.M. Constitution requires that water be administered by priority, ‘first in time, first in right.’ While such priority administration is required, it has rarely, if ever, been put to use. That has allowed too many demands to be placed upon a shrinking resource.
“Priorities must be administered so as not to exceed the physically and legally available water within the stream or basin, if planning doesn’t result in better solutions.”
An immediate cause for action is the U.S. Supreme Court decision that New Mexico must comply with Texas’ demands for more water flowing through New Mexico. “That will mean our Rio Grande water use will be cut back and our future water use will be explicited limited.
“The attendant adverse consequences and risks not only include a demand to deliver more water, but carry a potential billion-dollar damage assessment,” the group’s report advised.
The report blasts the State’s “hand-off approach to water administration. Neither history, hydrological facts, existing law, recent state law authorizations, nor agency initiatives have proved sufficient for New Mexico’s state and regional water management and planning agencies to confront our water problems. Left to fester, the problems are doing just that. State water management agencies have authorities fractured, and leadership lacks political support to admit and solve problems. The entire water administration program lacks accountability.”
The document warns conditions affecting water scarcity will only get worse. “To minimize the impact of climate change and build resilience, it is imperative that New Mexico plan for dealing with variable water supplies, including a focus on water-energy nexus, drought planning and preparation for extreme precipitation events to minimize their adverse impacts.”
But it’s not as though the state’s water dilemma has just been realized. Regional water plans got under way more than a decade ago with the convening of a Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly by then-Corrales water economist Lee Brown. (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXIV No.8 June 11, 2005 “Regional Water Assembly June 11, UNM Campus.”)
But those efforts were mostly futile, the report asserts. “Changes are required to make the state-funded regional water planning programs productive.
“Plans are needed for compliance with compacts and improved sustainability of groundwater supplies.The State’s water planning since the 1987 statutory establishment of regional water planning has not met these needs.
“Water planning should strive to protect our water supplies and make our uses of them more resilient. Planning should seek to collaboratively identify and implement balanced realistic solutions to solve real problems. Water plans should integrate goals and policies, including land-use decisions, water quality standards, recreational needs, environmental protections, agricultural uses, urban growth demands, tribal requirements, and climatic changes.
“Water planning at all levels must identify opportunities for conservation and seek to stop waste and non-conserving uses. To minimize the impact of climate change and build resilience, it is imperative that New Mexico plan for dealing with variable water supplies, including a focus on water-energy nexus, drought planning and preparation for extreme precipitation events to minimize their adverse impacts.”
The submission by the working group insisted that “The Interstate Stream Commission must change its processes to approve, modify, or reject regional water plan recommendations rather than only ‘accepting’ submitted plans. Approved recommendations must be implemented.
“Those charged with carrying out adopted strategies must be able to make credible commitments to do so, and the regional planning entity must have the ability to monitor both implementation and its effect on the water resource.”