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New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission discusses next 50 years of water management

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
The Animas River is one of the sources of drinking water as well as water for irrigation in San Juan County.

AZTEC — Climate change will both decrease water supplies and increase demand, and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission hopes a 50-year water plan will provide the tools and resources needed to navigate the future. 

This water plan, which is currently in the first phase of work, is among the Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's priorities. 

A study session on Feb. 18 provided the ISC commissioners with background on water planning in New Mexico, from the 19th century belief that rain would come if the land was farmed to the 2018 water plan that highlighted work needed in New Mexico’s 16 water planning regions.

The 50-year water plan will likely be completed in 2022. The ISC is supposed to learn more about it during the March study session.

The Penny Lane diversion is pictured, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, on the Animas River in Farmington. The San Juan River basin, which includes Farmington, relies on surface water like the Animas River.

Regions with limited aquifers rely almost entirely on surface water. Lucia Sanchez, the ISC's water planning program manager, gave the San Juan River basin as an example of one of those areas. Meanwhile, there are other regions of the state with no surface water. In those regions, they rely almost entirely on groundwater. Sanchez highlighted Lea County as an example of an area that relies on groundwater.

Looking to the future, Sanchez said there is a projected gap in supplies even without accounting for climate change in regions that rely heavily on groundwater. Under a drought scenario, she said all regions of the state will be impacted.

Giving directions without a destination

Most of the comments from ISC commissioners during the study session focused on climate change and balancing long-range planning with immediate needs. 

"I almost feel like a state water plan is like somebody asking for directions and that's easy enough to come up with if you know where the destination is," said Commissioner Aron Balok. "And I feel like we've been asked to come up with directions but haven't been given the destination, where we want to arrive."

He explained that New Mexico uses prior appropriation doctrine to react to scarcity. That means the oldest water rights have priority if there is a shortage. Balok said a state water plan should look at alternatives to prior appropriation. 

"I think it should always be viewed from that backstop," he said. "If nothing is done, then prior appropriation is going to handle that. In my mind, the increase in population creating different water demands is going to create a move from agriculture to more industrial and municipal uses."

He asked if there is a consensus among water planners that there is a destination or objective, such as wanting to avoid certain outcomes.

State Engineer John D'Antonio said Balok's analogy to trying to give directions without knowing a destination is a good analogy for what the natural resource agencies are dealing with today. 

"It's impossible to refute that temperatures are warming, water supplies are shrinking," he said.

He said the natural resource agencies are trying to figure out how to get to a destination and there are several bills in the Legislature that try to accomplish that goal.

Commissioner Greg Carrasco said it is easier to project future water supplies than to predict what the demand will be for water in 50 years.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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