Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

Water is life and New Mexico is quickly running out of it. The worst drought in 1,200 years continues to dry out the Land of Enchantment leaving its clear blue skies filled with the smoke of endless massive forest fires. In a recent journal article published in “Nature Climate Change,” researchers found the years 2000 to 2021 were the driest two-decade period since 800 A.D. The state’s water debt to Texas keeps growing and Rio Grande farmers are looking at less water again this year. It is estimated that, across the Navajo Nation, 30 to 40% of Diné homes do not have access to running water.  

U.S. Representative Melanie Stansbury (N.M.-01) created Water Action Month as a reminder that it’s time to rethink water management in New Mexico.

This month several comprehensive bipartisan bills, including the Water Data Act, the Rio Grande Water Security Act and several bills supporting Tribal and Pueblo water access, will be introduced to address water security across the West and the United States. House and Senate Representatives will be advocating a number of water bills designed to revolutionize national water management during Water Action Month.

Stansbury is introducing a federal-focused Water Data Act and the Rio Grande Water Security Act in the House of Representatives. Senate companion legislation (S.4236) led by U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (N.M.) and Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) will present the legislation before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. 

Stanbury’s state-focused Water Data Act was enacted as law in New Mexico. It identifies and integrates key water data. The Act now being introduced would allow federal agencies to adopt coordinated standards for reporting water data that would enable states, Tribes, and local communities to more easily access this information, which is vital during the severe drought conditions New Mexico is currently experiencing

Stansbury cosponsored the Tribal Access to Clean Water Act that was recently presented by Representative Joe Neguse along with the reauthorization of the Pueblo Indian Irrigation Fund.

Stansbury, U.S. Representatives Teresa Leger Fernández (N.M.-03) and Yvette Herrell (N.M.-02) will introduce additional bipartisan, bicameral legislation in the House, creating a broad package to address drought and water security legislation this month. 

“I am proud to cosponsor the Rio Grande Water Security Act,” said Rep. Herrell. “The long-term health and viability of the Rio Grande is not a partisan issue. Unless we take swift action, drought will continue to have negative effects on our communities, causing losses in crop yields and forcing ranchers to sell off cattle herds due to lack of water.”

Stansbury recently testified in support of the Tribal Water Security Legislation during a Water, Oceans, and Wildlife legislative hearing. She spoke about the WaterSMART Access for Tribes Act, H.R. 6238, that she cosponsored, which would help Tribes access key funding for addressing water resources management.

Tribal nations across New Mexico have been without sufficient funding to address water infrastructure needs, including funding for irrigation, drinking water and other water security needs for many decades. Burdens and cost sharing requirements have acted as a significant barrier to accessing needed funding.

“As we know, water is life. Water is sacred, and water is essential to everything that we do,” Stanberry told those attending the hearing. “And yet, for many of our Tribal and Indigenous communities, access to water, water infrastructure and funding needed to build and maintain this infrastructure have remained out of reach.”

The To’hajiilee chapter of the Navajo Nation has lived for years without safe drinking water, having to haul water from miles away for use in homes, public buildings and the local senior center. In February 2022, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority approved $7.7 million in funding for the To’Hajiilee water pipeline from the state water trust and finance authority.

Construction of the pipeline is expected to last 12 to 18 months. The approval dictates that seven million dollars will come from a grant, with the Navajo Nation expected to repay nearly $800,000 as a loan.

The U.S. WaterSMART program supports water conservation, water-use efficiency, drought planning and water reuse and recycling projects. The program consolidates several water conservation authorities under the Bureau of Reclamation. Fewer than five percent of the projects funded under WaterSMART since its inception have been led by Tribes or Pueblos.

“For more than a decade, the US Department of the Interior’s WaterSMART program has provided hundreds of grants to communities across the West as one of our nation’s premier water conservation programs,” Stansbury said. “Yet, Tribes have received fewer than 5% of these grants in spite of the huge need across Tribal communities, because of burdens and cost sharing requirements, which have acted as a significant barrier to accessing these funds,” Stansbury explained.

The WaterSMART Access for Tribal Act would give the Navajo Nation the opportunities they need to receive financial support on the pipeline and a variety of other water projects. The Act has gained momentum and support since its introduction, with 14 bipartisan cosponsors of the bill including Representative Leger Fernández (N.M.-03).

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez also provided testimony virtually for the WOW hearing in support of the WaterSMART Access for Tribes Act and the Tribal Access to Clean Water Act.

“Current estimates show that between 9,000 and 16,000 Navajo homes do not have access to running water. Those families must haul water from filling stations around the Nation to meet their basic needs, which poses a great economic burden on families that already struggle,” Nez said.

“Navajo citizens pay an estimated 67 times more for water that they haul versus water that is delivered via a municipal water system into their homes. This includes the cost of gasoline for their vehicle, for the barrels that hold the water, maintenance of vehicles, and the cost of the water itself, which depends on where they are buying the water,” Nez explained.

If it becomes law, the WaterSMART Tribal Access Act would authorize U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to remove barriers that have been in the way of tribes receiving funding and would unlock millions of dollars that are vitally needed to invest in Tribal water access. These include projects for addressing drought, water conservation, efficiency, reuse and recycling. Under the bipartisan Act, Haaland could waive or reduce cost-share requirements for Tribes to implement drought and water projects under the Bureau of Reclamation.

“In the year 2022, as the West is facing an unprecedented drought, it is unconscionable that we have not summoned the moral courage and the political will to address these issues,” Stansbury concluded.