The Time is Coming, or at Least That’s What We Refuse to Believe
Water is in the news a lot these days, if not in our streams or in the clouds. Closest to home, Chevron’s applications to transfer a combined 7 acre feet of water to a pair of Questa area landowners was denied by the Office of the State Engineer. These applications, protested by no one, would have stimulated local economic activity, and comprised a small but significant increment of progress in the region’s perpetual work to reduce food insecurity.
In the 2022 legislative session, considerable effort was applied to tweaking New Mexico’s Cannabis Regulation Act, last year’s landmark legislation legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in the state. The tweaks were intended to clarify tax language as well as the number of plants a small grower could legally produce. Then, out of the blue, Senator Cliff Pyrtle introduced an amendment to remove water protections in the original legislation, which required the upfront verification of valid water rights before a permit to grow pot commercially would be granted.
If passed, the amendment would have allowed any aspiring grower to simply claim a water right regardless of whether it was valid or not. In the worst scenario, proving and enforcing an invalid water right could require years of legal action and expense. At its simplest, though, the amendment would throw (or keep) the door open for water theft and haphazard water management, impacts that would be felt disproportionately in rural acequia communities.
The legislature debated funding acequia infrastructure and adding $15 million to the Strategic Water Reserve, a tool that enables the compensation of a water rights holder for an alternate use—instream flow for endangered species, for example—of the right holder’s water. The SWR could also fund the fallowing of farmland to help New Mexico chip away at its ballooning water debt to the State of Texas.
The water debt stems from the Rio Grande Compact, a 1939 agreement signed by Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas that apportions the Rio Grande’s water between the three states. To have a debt means that a state has not honored its compact obligation to a downstream state. As of August 2021, New Mexico’s debt to Texas was 96,000 acre feet. As of this January, it had risen to 125,000, a little more than Albuquerque consumes in a year.
If there is indeed a unifying theme to the water issues discussed in this article, it might be the debt and the importance of erasing it. Failing to do so could cost New Mexico billions in damages and possibly water use curtailments in an era when water from the sky is also expected to decline.
Our debt to Texas is the elephant in the room, as it expresses exactly how successful New Mexico is at living within its means.
Pending further details on the story, a person on the street could speculate that the Office of the State Engineer’s scrutiny on Chevron’s water transfer application was simply a matter of responsible water management in the interest of debt service.
But if that were true, if paying down the wet water we’ve owed Texas for quite some time was informing our leadership, wouldn’t legislators have been more concerned at the prospect of unaccounted-for water withdrawals (domestic, groundwater, or out-of-turn acequia withdrawals) for cannabis cultivation? It’s worth noting that the cannabis amendment would have passed if a vote were actually held on it (the clock ran out on the 2022 session). Water protections would have been eliminated, and many of the same Democrats and Republicans who spend campaign seasons exalting the sanctity of rural communities would have been responsible.
If our water debt mattered so much, wouldn’t legislators have jumped at the chance to direct petroleum-driven budget surpluses to strengthening the Strategic Water Reserve (alas, they did not)? Wouldn’t they prioritize funding (ditto) of watershed restoration on a recurring instead of just a one-time basis, as is their habit?
In these drought-cursed times, might we all benefit from less arbitrary leadership, and more transparency when it comes to water? Even from my layperson’s perspective, it seems imperative to develop a coherent vision that tracks constructively with the 50-Year Water Plan currently underway. This vision should be accountable and demonstrate an understanding that water resilience is not a box of chocolates thrown into the shopping cart only after the staples have been taken care of.
Water resilience is the meat and the bread. It goes in first.