Policy: Environment & Energy

Water issues eyed at New Mexico town hall meeting

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Photo - New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn, center, discusses water quality issues around the state as Laguna Pueblo Gov. Richard Luarkie and Luara McCarthy of The Nature Conservancy listen during a town hall in Albuquerque, N.M. on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. Hundreds of state officials, water managers, researchers and others were participating in the two-day meeting with the goal of developing a series of recommendations as New Mexico grapples with drought. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn, center, discusses water quality issues around the state as Laguna Pueblo Gov. Richard Luarkie and Luara McCarthy of The Nature Conservancy listen during a town hall in Albuquerque, N.M. on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. Hundreds of state officials, water managers, researchers and others were participating in the two-day meeting with the goal of developing a series of recommendations as New Mexico grapples with drought. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A failure by New Mexico to address water supply challenges and climate change would have far-ranging effects on everything from national security to energy independence and the ability to compete in the global economy, a U.S. senator said Tuesday.

The warning was issued by Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich to state officials, business leaders, tribal officials and mayors as they gathered for a two-day town hall on the severe drought gripping New Mexico.

Heinrich told participants there's no single solution to the water problems and steps must be taken to prevent conditions from getting worse.

"There's no doubt we're seeing bigger fires. We're seeing drier summers. We're seeing more severe floods when it does finally rain and less snowpack in the winter," Heinrich said. "The reality is things are only going to get more challenging."

Heather Balas, president of New Mexico First, which organized the meeting, said 31 of the state's 33 counties were represented and those in attendance ranged from lawmakers and farmers to students and researchers.

Discussions focused on aging water infrastructure, conservation and reuse, water rights and planning for crisis situations. The goal was to come up with 16 recommendations by the end of Wednesday.

Balas said participants would need to set aside stereotypes and politics if they are to reach any consensus.

New Mexico is entering its fourth consecutive year of drought following one of the driest winters on record. The drought reached unprecedented levels last summer and nearly 70 percent of the state is still in severe drought with little promise for moisture this spring.

New Mexico has weathered the drought through piecemeal responses such as temporary water-sharing agreements and watering restrictions, but town hall organizers say solutions should be more comprehensive and coordinated.

New Mexico depends on rain and snow and whatever river flows make it south from Colorado.

"Of that water received each year, an estimated 97 percent evaporates or is transpired by plants," town hall organizers said in a background report prepared for the meeting. "The remaining 3 percent is what we use to help meet human, economic, legal, environmental and groundwater recharge needs."

That doesn't leave New Mexico with many options aside from tapping brackish sources and treating and reusing wastewater.

Some of the questions explored at the town hall involved how New Mexico plans to handle expected water scarcity and whether the state can benefit from collecting storm runoff during summer monsoons.

State Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, showed the crowd photographs of the Rio Grande near his family's farm in southern New Mexico. The river was dry last year for all but 40 days, he said.

Cervantes, however, doesn't like to use the word drought.

"We use the word with a hope and prayer that it's going to end and that may be a big mistake," he said.

Cervantes, a lawyer, said the recommendations that come out of the meeting should include a commitment to adjudicate water rights around the state. In the lower Rio Grande, experts estimate that could take decades.

"Right now we're trying to talk about conservation and reallocation and many other good concepts," Cervantes said. "But if we don't know who has what water rights, and we don't know what those rights consist of, then most of that dialogue is not going to be very constructive."

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Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM

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