Report recommends steps for managing scarce water in parched N.M.

Posted: May 6, 2013

Written by

April Reese, Greenwire
Rio Grande

New Mexico will need to manage its increasingly scarce water supplies more carefully and more collaboratively if the state is to have a sustainable future, according to a report commissioned by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and released today.

The report details the need to restore New Mexico's rivers; prepare for climate change impacts on water supplies; increase efficiency in agricultural and municipal systems; and enhance collaboration among states, agencies and water users in managing basins such as the Rio Grande and Pecos River basins.

Udall, who relayed the report's recommendations during an appearance this morning at a park in Las Cruces in southern New Mexico, warned that the state faces dry times ahead.

"We are in the worst drought in over half a century," he said in a statement. "The report contains numerous proposed actions that I look forward on drawing from in my work on the Appropriations Committee, the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Indian Affairs Committee. We need to continue this discussion because we can't control the weather. But we can -- and we must -- improve our response to it. I believe that working together can meet the challenges ahead."

The report offers 40 recommendations, gleaned from a New Mexico water conference convened by Udall last August (Greenwire, Aug. 29, 2012). Some key suggestions: Utilities must work together to develop more sustainable water systems; green infrastructure like porous pavement to reduce flood risk and enhanced aquifer recharge should be expanded; leaking pipes and other delivery infrastructure must be repaired; and management of dams and reservoirs must be improved to "maximize both agricultural and environmental needs."

Udall also called on Congress to fully fund the Secure Water Act, which is designed to help communities better quantify existing water supplies so they can plan for the future.

The report urges caution on water transfers -- an increasingly popular solution to water scarcity in the West.

While transfers represent "one of the most promising but controversial" ways to meet water needs in the Southwest as the region grapples with drought and greater scarcity, many rural residents are concerned that they will "irrevocably lead to the further erosion of sustainable rural, agricultural communities," the report notes.

Pilot transfer programs should be developed to test various options and ensure that both environmental and agricultural needs are met, according to the report. And temporary transfers may be preferable to long-term ones, it adds.

Efficiency gains in the agricultural sector, which accounts for 70 percent of water use in New Mexico, would help stretch supplies, the report says.

Conservation should be encouraged, although given that municipal use only constitutes 6 percent of water use in New Mexico, it doesn't have huge supply benefits over the long term, the report notes.

Finally, it might be necessary to revisit interstate water compacts in light of what is now known about water budgets and future effects of climate change, the report suggests.

Denise Fort, a water law professor at the University of New Mexico and director of the Utton Transboundary Resources Center, praised the Udall report and said she was especially heartened to see its admonition to refrain from building new dams to divert water from the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, which is part of the Colorado River Basin. New Mexico has Colorado River rights but has not tapped the Gila River. Some state lawmakers want to see the state develop those rights to meet future demand in southern New Mexico.

"I appreciate his common-sense cautions about large-scale projects to transfer water from this fragile river," she said. "In all, Sen. Udall brought forth a solid agenda for New Mexico water out of a multitude of perspectives."

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