NM WRRI annual water conference presented “Straight Talk”
Eluid Martinez, who served as New Mexico’s state engineer from 1991 to 1994, calls himself the “last of the water buffaloes.” As an engineer principally involved in the development of water infrastructure, including dam building, his work has been criticized in intervening years. “Conservation meant using every drop we could in beneficial uses,” he recalled during a special panel presentation, called “Straight Talk.” Martinez, who also served as Bureau of Reclamation commissioner from 1995 to 2001, was joined by two other past state engineers, Tom Turney and John D’Antonio as well as a long-time state engineer assistant, John W. Hernandez, on the panel.
“Then things began to change,” Martinez said, pointing to the public perception of using water for environmental purposes and concerns about population growth and how to meet its demands. Now, in a water-short era, “People who once criticized the dam building are saying, if it weren’t for those reservoirs, where would we be?”
Martinez’s story puts the cyclical nature of the state engineer’s job into perspective. Not everything changed, he hastened to add. The key problem facing the NM WRRI conference he attended 40 years ago “is the same issue sitting before us today. How do you meet increasing demand with limited resources?”
“The pressures on the Rio Grande now and other rivers of the state in the future are great,” said Sen. Tom Udall, who moderated the panel. If we didn’t have the storage in northern New Mexico reservoirs and the San Juan-Chama project, the Rio Grande would be dry right now. That’s a pretty shocking thing . . . Where are we going to get the water?”
New Mexico can be considered “the poster child of water users in the U.S.,” John D’Antonio said. “We’ve got every water user and interest group that any other state has and more.” D’Antonio served as state engineer from 2003 to 2011. “New Mexico water issues are “polarizing at times,” he told the audience, “but they are also rewarding. The water community is here in this room and no matter the differences and the contentiousness, I still consider it as a family.” Now in times of extreme drought, “we all know what Scott [Verhines present state engineer] is going to be facing. We aren’t going to be able to get anywhere unless we collaborate.”
An obvious choice for bringing water to growing municipalities is to transfer it from agricultural use. About 75 percent of the state’s water use is for agriculture. Steve Reynolds, an often-quoted state engineer who served in the post for 35 years until his death in 1990, estimated that a 10 or 15 percent cut in irrigation water would allow New Mexico municipalities to double their population. “The problem is,” Martinez said, “that right now we are attempting to meet existing demands and future demands. You cannot accomplish both objectives.”
New Mexico’s water priority system, the makings of which reach back to the 1500s, calls for all users to be treated equally. Some western states have changed to a priority system that recognizes the needs of municipalities in times of water shortages and diverts available waters to them first. “We see these priorities argued in the courts,” said Tom Turney, state engineer between 1995 and 2003. “Every user wants the number one priority and the maximum amount of water they can get.” Changing the priority system would not change that and would be “a terrible mistake,” he said.
“It’s easy to say we can take water from agriculture to double the state population, but it’s a mistake to do away with the heritage of agricultural use of water in New Mexico,” Turney said.
Priority calls may be a thing of the past, said John Hernandez, a 50-year veteran of the state engineer’s office and professor emeritus at NMSU. A 1991 court decision requiring New Mexico to find and deliver 18,000 additional acre-feet annually to Texas resulted in a state acquisition of the water rather than a priority call, he noted. Asking people with water rights obtained after 1932 to give them up would have created a difficult and chaotic situation, he said. Then-Governor Bruce King was easily persuaded to take the acquisition approach.
“Making a priority call is a good hammer but a hammer that does not work,” Martinez said.
Also a question with agricultural transfers is “where and how do we take water out of agriculture?” D’Antonio said. Some two million people live between Cochiti Pueblo and Las Cruces in the Middle Rio Grande Valley and there is not enough farmland to provide needed water use permits. “So where do we get it?” Conservation, reuse of water, and new (non-renewable) supplies through desalination technologies, may provide part of the solution. Interbasin water transfers, bringing water from outside the valley, have been proposed twice in recent years, but denied by the state engineer’s office. “This valley is the economic engine for state. The jobs are going to be there.” Short-term transfers in drought years, may help provide some flexibility, D’Antonio said.
Once identified, moving water from agriculture to cities and industrial uses under the current rules and regulations is a difficult process. “The transfer process is so cumbersome, a city could disappear before you could get through the process and get a Supreme Court decision,” said Martinez. As a result, municipal users tend to acquire long-term water rights to avoid the transfer process.
A short-term transfer process would allow for quick action, “where the municipalities get the water, but the farmer can continue to farm,” Martinez said. It has the added advantage of allowing communities to discuss water needs instead of asking the state to decide, noted Udall. “A village can talk about their water rights and decide if conservation or infrastructure improvements are needed, or where the community should head. It should be a community decision.”
The legislature recognized the slow process involved in transfers and directed that an expedited process be developed a decade ago, D’Antonio said. The state engineer established basins, put in place project plans, and set up water masters to meter use. “We have been at the cutting edge with respect to other states in the West, trying to put this into place. You can’t manage unless you measure the water,” he said. The hold-up to the process has come largely as a result of legal challenges, he said, “not for lack of trying.”
Both Martinez and D’Antonio harkened to the “water buffalo” approach to water. “The big question is “where’s the next San Juan-Chama project?” said D’Antonio, who is now deputy district engineer in the Army Corps of Engineers’ Albuquerque office. “There is no new water. We are fully appropriated for the most part.” The last large-scale projects had their beginnings decades ago, he noted. To take pressure off of the state’s groundwater, New Mexico should be addressing the building of new water infrastructure and augmenting supplies. “We’ve got to look for next San Juan-Chama project. We can’t do it alone, we need to partner with other state and fed agencies. We need to work together in a lot of different areas,” he said.
In closing, Martinez urged present leaders to value New Mexico’s unique past, but not to depend on old ways too much. “Begin to look out of the box based on new information,” he urged.
“Don’t go immediately to court,” Turney advised. “Keep discussions between water users alive. Better solutions come from dialog and discussion,” he said.
Use science-based decisions, collaborate with the many experts available to the state, and seek regional solutions, suggested D’Antonio. “We tend to look too small sometimes. If we can leverage federal and state programs, we can build systems that are too large to build on our own,” he said.