Cross posted in El Grito
It’s bad and we’re all lawyered up.
That’s a good tweet-length description of the State Engineer’s information about water given to a joint hearing of Senate Conservation, Judiciary and Finance committees on January 24th. The hearing was sparsely attended but Conservation Chair, Senator Wirth assured the larger audience in the gallery that many Senators were listening in their offices. (Sure they were.) State Engineer, Scott Verhines and the Director of the Interstate Stream Commission, Estevan Lopez, described the offices and function before Conservation Bureau Director, John Longworth presented sobering drought statistics. It was dry, but not nearly as dry as New Mexico.
Water is the most important issue we talk the least about. Senator Peter Wirth
New Mexico water law is unique and the complexities are great and growing. Scarcity, not surprisingly, is increasing costs and conflict. The Engineer estimated the value of water rights in New Mexico at $15-16 billion dollars. Later, Senator John Smith quipped that the only thing we have less of in New Mexico than water is money. As for conflict, it’s epic. The attorney noted only some of the multiple lawsuits in federal and state court. Litigation issues are scheduled to will be presented again to the Senate Finance Committee on January 31st at 1:30, Room 322. It’ll be interesting to see just how much all that water lawyering costs.
Drought got the most focus. John Longsworth presented tragic temperature, precipitation and reservoir data. Over 95% of our state is in moderate to extreme drought. Reservoirs are very low with Elephant Butte at 7% capacity. 2012 temperatures were the warmest in 118 years and the last 24 months are the driest in 120 years. Senator Phil Griego later described the crisis in southern New Mexico saying that more than 13,000 acres of farmland on the Pecos River have been abandoned and that people are so desperate some are stealing hay.
Wet years have a way of covering up a multitude of water management sins. Drought exposes them for all to see. John Fleck, ABQ Journal
Among the consequences of drought to Verhine’s Office are even more litigation and more complicated administrative decisions. He lauded his staff’s intelligence and work ethic saying they carefully consider long term and unintended consequences of applications. That’s good, because there are deep consequences to the trend of transferring water to the highest bidders. Pressures on the State Engineer for favorable rulings are unlikely to abate, even if the drought does, and there is no end in sight to lawsuits.
Speaking of which, the San Augustin Ranch LLC proposal for a water transfer from Catron County to the Rio Grande was mentioned. A court had upheld the Engineer’s initial denial of the permit but that decision was just appealed. The case entailed the largest administrative hearing ever conducted by any State Engineer with 900 protests to the transfer. It is not going away.
Solve, not fight