Legislature Pulls Drought Group Funding

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Last year, New Mexico state lawmakers set aside $100,000 to study the state’s water supply.

With that funding, five climate scientists, economists, engineers and hydrologists from the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology had some specific, statewide goals. They needed to figure out how drought might affect rivers and reservoirs, groundwater supplies and the state’s economy—and then identify vulnerabilities and policy strategies.

But a year later, the funding is gone. Citing a drop in state revenue, the New Mexico State Legislature earlier this year pulled funding for the group—known as the New Mexico Universities Working Group on Water Supply Vulnerabilities.

“There’s no ax to grind with anyone, it’s just a shortage of money and we’re trying to prioritize money for public education and higher education,” says Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chair of the Legislative Finance Committee and an advisory member of the Water and Natural Resources Committee. “That’s the nature of the beast.”

The recent drop in oil prices, welcomed at the pump by motorists, is partly to blame. New Mexico, an oil-and-gas state, derives a portion of its revenue to pay for government services from oil and gas drilling, making it sensitive to market fluctuations. That “sensitivity to oil has dramatically increased in recent years, magnified due to the record levels of production,” state economists wrote earlier this year in a memo.

A $1 change in the price of oil produces a $10 million change in what flows into the state’s major account—the general fund, according to that memo.

With fewer dollars coming in, David Abbey, director of the Legislative Finance Committee, says that policy makers had to make decisions.

“The top education funding priority was instruction and general funding,” Abbey writes in an email. “Also there was an appearance of duplicate funding with many other water resource programs and initiatives.”

Despite the lack of continued funding, the group’s early findings are valuable for water planners and citizens.

(NMID obtained a copy of the report presented to the Interim Committee on Water and Natural Resources and posted it here.)

The five-member study team began by studying southern New Mexico where farmers in the Rio Grande Valley have experienced dire water shortages.

By and large, in the 20th and 21st centuries, communities have survived droughts and water shortages by pumping groundwater. Even when the state isn’t experiencing drought, many cities and farmers alike still pump groundwater.  In early 2015, Peggy Johnson, a hydrogeologist with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Tech, told attendees at a meeting of the New Mexico Water Dialogue that pumping has depleted a resource that can take centuries to replenish.

Between 1985 and 2010, water users depleted the groundwater beneath Doña Ana County by 2.5 million acre feet—about the capacity of Elephant Butte Reservoir. Right now, she says, our rates of withdrawal—the amount of water we pump from beneath the ground—exceed the ability of those aquifers to recharge.

What does that mean? Basically, that New Mexicans in the future might not have groundwater to rely on as backup when rivers and reservoirs are low.

Although in the past we’ve sustained ourselves through water shortages by relying on deep groundwater, she said to the group: “aquifers aren’t going to be there to solve our water problems anymore.”

During that water meeting in January, people were still optimistic that the working group would continue—and that its work would broaden out across the state. “The data isn’t static,” said Consuelo Bokum, longtime Water Dialogue board member, speaking to the assembled crowd. “If we’re going to do planning, it’s necessary to know this.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, has found himself increasingly frustrated with reports that document the state’s water problems, but don’t offer concrete policy solutions. “My worry is that no one wants to ever propose something because you’re going to piss someone off,” he says. “It’s not good enough—and all of us need to do better.”

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