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.

In the future water is going to be more valuable than gold in New Mexico. The outlook is bleak with runoff and recharge expected to decline by as much or more than 25% and temperatures expected to rise by 5 to 7 degrees across the state.

As the Land of Enchantment enters 2023, the state is facing a water crisis like no other. Many who live here are unaware of how bad the state’s water crisis actually is. Yes, we are in a climate crisis, however, cycles of legislative neglect, agency debilitation, bypassing and/or patching of obsolete regulations, and failure to take into adequate account New Mexico’s diverse populations has compounded the water scarcity problem.

To keep our rivers flowing, bosques alive and the Land of Enchantment filled with wildlife, agriculture and people, New Mexico must face its water resource limitations.  The state is in arrears to its downstream water delivery obligations to Texas under the Rio Grande Compact, has federal mandated requirements, and state permitted water uses and authorizations significantly exceed sustainable water supplies. We are sucking water from other nearby water basins to keep the Rio Grande flowing.

For the Pueblo and Tribal Nations, the big unanswered question for well over a century has been – would they be included in the planning for a future of dwindling water supplies in the San Juan and Rio Grande basins. Even if it is long overdue, it appears times “maybe a changing. Several initiatives have at least put the Pueblo and Native Tribes on the bus. Time will tell how far back they are sitting.

Water Equity Support for Pueblo and Tribal Nation

For the past century and a half, federal, state and local water-planning agencies have been carving up the Rio Grande’s water flow with compact agreements and distribution among municipalities, industry and private users instead of treating Tribal and Pueblo Nations as partners. The majority of Tribes, including the six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos, have decades old unresolved water claims. Some northern Pueblos have secured water rights through settlement agreements, most others have not.

The following initiatives may further an all-of-government approach to co-stewardship in management of waters, fisheries, and other resources of significance and value to New Mexican Tribal communities.

–      New Mexico’s soon to be released 50 Year Water Plan offers strategies for protecting and enhancing New Mexico’s limited water supply through sustainability, stewardship and equity.

–      The Biden-Harris administration’s announcement of new actions that create opportunities for Tribal consultation and input at the Second Tribal Nations Summit in DC.

–      The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Strengthening the Nation-to-Nation Relationship with Tribes to Secure a Sustainable Water Future.

–      the EPA’s recent proposal to revise the federal water quality standards regulations to protect Tribal rights under the Clean Water Act, The EPA is accepting comments on the proposal for 90 days, and is holding two online public hearings on this proposal.

Acting as a supporting agency to gain input on the state’s 50 Year Water Plan from Tribal leaders, New Mexico Indian Affairs Department (NMIAD) assisted the Office of the State Engineer and Interstate Stream Commission (NMOSE/ISC) with creating the Tribal Water Work Group (TWWG) in September, 2021. In November 2021, TWWG, NMOSE, ISC, and IAD hosted the Tribal Water Forum for Tribal leaders to share cultural, legal, and traditional knowledge and values of water to be incorporated into the 50 Year Water Plan.

After sharing their ideas at the Forum, the Tribal Water Work Group chose to create a stand-alone Tribal Water Report that highlights some of the challenges and obstacles that need to be solved to increase Tribal water resilience. The report was submitted for inclusion in the 50 Year Water Plan.

Water Expert Norm Gaume on New Mexico’s Water Crisis

The Paper recently spoke with Norm Gaume about the state’s 50 Year Water Plan. His knowledge of water issues in the state makes him a force to be reckoned with. Gaume is a retired water engineer who served as manager of the City of Albuquerque Water Resources, Director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and an engineering advisor to The Rio Grande Compact Commission. Gaume is President of the Middle Rio Grande Water Advocates and previously testified about water issues with Santolina to the Rio Grande Compact Commission in 2015.

Guame was appointed a member of the State Engineer’s Water Policy and Infrastructure Task Force which completed a substantive set of recommendations for the Legislature and the Governor for the 50 Year Water Plan. The Task Force was composed of 29 members and included Tribal members and Tribal liaisons.

“We are not in a drought; this is the new normal,” Gaume told The Paper. We’ve been sleepwalking into the future. Most of the Task Force recommendations are what the state needs to change to pivot in 2023 so that we have a resilient water future instead of water and economic insecurity.

The History and Funding of New Mexico’s Water Plans

The state Water Plan Act statute was passed in 2003 and required five-year updates. “The state engineer office wrote a state water plan that year. There wasn’t much public involvement or outreach. It’s a pretty good plan, but it went on the shelf,” Gaume explained. “There was no money or interest in implementing it. The 2008 update was trivial. The 2013 update was trivial.

“In 2018 during the Susana Martinez administration, they called it the 2018 State Water Plan, but it’s not a plan. There’s no way you can describe it as a plan. It was a resource guide and listed some $4 billion prioritized projects. How do you start working on a $4 billion project backlog when all you have is a one sentence description? The state is due for a five-year update to the state water plan in 2023. Release of the Water Plan is imminent,” Gaume said.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s water policy paper published a week before the 2018 election called for a state water plan. After elected, MLG and the Office of the State Engineer requested that the 2022 Legislature allocate $750,000 to kick-start the plan. Legislators gave her request a thumbs down.

“One of our huge water management problems in the state is that the leaders of the very top are not providing the resources needed. It’s just kind of been status quo; business as usual,” Gaume said. “Water governance in New Mexico is a complex, neglected mess.”

Gaume explained the core problem for any water plan in New Mexico is financing. “The philosophy of the Legislative Finance Committee is, if agencies haven’t performed it, then they get less money. I think the situation with the state is that the agencies can’t perform because they don’t have the resources they need. If the state wishes to survive a more arid future, it needs to invest in capacity, set the goals, provide the resources and demand accountability. We’re going to have to find a way to sustain resources to the Governor for water to carry out the phrase in state statute …“in accordance with the public welfare of the state.”

Gaume believes it is possible for the 50 Year Water Plan to be done in a way that preserves the things valued in New Mexico, including its diverse cultures, the people in its economy, those growing food and the environment.

“Unless we focus on this problem, New Mexico may not be able to survive, ” Gaume concluded. “We are dedicated to getting bills prepared and ready for the legislative session. Now is the time to respectfully demand the 2023 Legislature and Governor pivot to protect our water.”

Task Force Ambassadors Reach Out to the Community

Task Force members serving as Water Ambassadors and community liaisons are doing outreach for communities and water user groups across the state. With the state’s 50 Year Water Plan due out soon, Task Force Members are reaching out to the public to get them on board to help put the brakes on New Mexico’s water crisis.

On November 29, 350 NM hosted a Webinar summarizing the state’s water resource problems under climate change and the Task Force’s water management and planning recommendations. This Water Future Video links to the November 29 talk. 

On December 8 at 6:30 pm. The Mid Rio Grande Water Advocates host a Webinar summarizing task force recommendations pertaining to helping communities plan, fund, design, build, operate, and maintain drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure, and recommendations to improve watershed, river, and aquifer health. 

On January 11, at 6:30 pm. Mid Rio Grande Water Advocates will host a Webinar focusing on other water bills and appropriation requests that require the 2023 Legislature’s and the Governor’s approval. 

View the Leap Ahead Analysis report detailing the current knowledge on how climate change and water resources may vary in New Mexico over the next 50 years. The report also identifies significant data, modeling gaps and uncertainties, and suggests research directions to strengthen understanding of climate and water resource changes. It includes recommendations for the Governor, the Legislature, and all New Mexicans. Additional Leap Ahead videos are available on YouTube.

I asked Gaume about Tribal and Pueblo inclusion in the state’s water plan. “The State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission assigned additional resources to meet with the Pueblos and Tribal Nations, however we were not privy to any of those details. In the end, the Tribal participants got together and wrote their own Tribal case for the 50 Water Plan. It will be included in the 50 Year Water Plan unmodified. I’m not sure exactly how, but I know it will be included.”