Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Water a key topic for the Legislature this session

The Rio Grande flows over a diversion dam in Algodones Aug. 5. (Eddie Moore/)

Copyright © 2023

There’s a lot of money on the table in this year’s legislative session, and some lawmakers, such as Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, are eyeing it to put toward protecting the state’s water resources.

Additionally, a proposed agreement between New Mexico, Texas and Colorado that was unsealed earlier this month and would end a nearly decade-long lawsuit over use of Rio Grande water would, if enacted, force the state to make changes in how it manages that water .

The Journal spoke with Wirth last week to discuss the role of water in this session.

Q: What are your priorities there regarding water this year?

A: My personal biggest priority is a bill that I’ve pre-filed …, which is the regionalization bill.

It’s something that’s been around for, boy, a number of years. It’ll create a template for all the small regional systems to join together and form a regional entity, and basically, by doing that, there’s incredible economies of scale … ​​.

Currently, without this bill, small systems wanting to do this have to come to the Legislature and pass legislation, each individual system. We’ve had a couple of examples that have worked.

Q: You also pre-filed a bill that would change up the makeup of the Interstate Stream Commission. Can you tell me about that?

A: That’s a bill that’s been around for a long time, that I’ve been unable to get past. We changed the Interstate Streams Commission’s mission in 2003 to include planning and all the types of things that we need to be doing looking forward. It used to be just an entity that dealt with compacts and was much more technical.

The board is made up of conservation district members and doesn’t have a diversity of interests on that board. If we’re going to have a group who’s talking about long-term water policy in New Mexico, it needs to have a diversity of voices on the board.

Q: Often, there’s a complaint that, even when there’s money for specific projects or agencies, there’s not necessarily the manpower to carry out the work. Is there anything on the horizon here that might help alleviate that?

A: There’s a lot of money here right now. I think one of the things that has been a priority is certainly making sure that these key agencies have the staffing resources they need to implement all of these because we can pass all the bills in the world and if we don’t put the boots on the ground to get the job done, we’ve failed.

Q: The state government had peaks and valleys with funds. How do you make sure that you’re getting these agencies consistent funding so that they can do longer term projects?

A: That’s a great question because it wasn’t so long ago, in 2017, that we were out of money. All of a sudden, you’re doing exactly the opposite. You’re rolling back … .

It’s ensuring that you build the new resources into the budget and you don’t build them with one-time money. I’ve experienced this from the other side, before I was in the Legislature. The Legislature was able to get us money for one year for a nonprofit that I was the board president of, and it was the best thing in the world for the first six months. Then, we realized it was going away.

That doesn’t work. It needs to be built into the budget and, once it’s in there, it’s part of the base. There are a lot of challenging issues that the Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations and the Legislative Finance Committee have been talking about with personnel rules, and things that need to be tweaked that tie into all these vacancies and how things get adjusted.

But we have to be competitive, and it’s really tough in these areas, when you’ve got national labs, Los Alamos and Sandia, and are trying to compete with that … .

Q: How do you make sure water is a priority when we’re talking about money like this?

A: What’s super exciting this year is the State Engineer’s Task Force. What I’m really encouraged about is that they have worked with the Legislative Finance Committee. On the opening day of the session, they’ve (already) been in multiple meetings and that’s the kind of spade work that has to happen to really get the kind of dollars where they need to be.

I received a briefing yesterday from the Attorney General on Texas vs. New Mexico. Water is going to be front and center because we’re going to have no choice. There’s going to be a new delivery point, assuming that all plays out on the state line, and we’re going to have to make changes to how things have been done in the Middle Rio Grande, as well, but it’s really Elephant Butte Dam down to the state line … .

One other bill I’ve pre-filed – we’re seeking to put $250 million into the Water Permanent Fund. We have a Water Trust Permanent Fund that we created under Governor (Bill) Richardson. It started with $40 million, then we put $15 million in 2007, and it spins off money for the Water Trust Board projects, but we’ve never put any more money in.

That’s a great way to park money, and what’s nice is the language allows the Legislature to determine how spending happens, but it has to be for water … .

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