What if you went to a shooting gallery, and all the little metal ducks and deer and rabbits, in addition to rattling along a track to present you with a moving target, started shrinking before your eyes. Pretty tough shooting, you’d probably say.
Well, when it comes to planning for New Mexico’s water resources, that’s not a bad metaphor for the problems the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission face.
Not only do annual patterns and amounts of snow pack and rainfall and temperature fluctuate from year to year, making for a moving target, there’s plenty of evidence that the amount of water available to farmers, ranchers and residents of New Mexico is getting smaller.
A just-announced study of 30 years of record-keeping on the Upper Colorado River Basin shows, even allowing for fluctuations, there is a steadily rising curve of temperatures, and that the warmer climate is increasing water loss from the streams, lakes and reservoirs of the Upper Colorado to evaporation.
The net-net of all this, says a team of experts from the US Geological Service, the University of Arizona and the University of Nevada-Reno is that water flow in the Upper Colorado River Basin has dropped by 7% over the last 30 years, the fastest decline in stream flows since measurements began.
For New Mexico, the Upper Colorado Basin is a major source of water for the Rio Grande, the most important river in the state.
As stream flows decline, they make water allocations for all the states of the American Southwest, more and more obsolete. A sharing plan based on the water available in, say 1956, when Lake Powell, the main reservoir of the Upper Colorado Basin was built, has consistently over-promised the real amounts of water available each succeeding decade, and this pattern is evident not just for the mighty Colorado but for more modest streams like the lovely Gila River of Southwestern New Mexico.
A plan for diverting water from the Gila in 2004 said the diversion could take up to 14,000 acre feet per year. From the start, skeptics said that was more water than the whole Gila river system contained. The latest engineering plan offered to the Stream Commission seems to suggest the real takeout could be 425 acre feet per annum, or about 3% of the original proposal.
Over the 13 years the Gila Diversion Project has been on someone’s drawing board, some $12 million in federal aid money has been spent, much of it on people to draw up, evaluate, revise, and re-evaluate reams of paper plans. For better or for worse, the $12 million has produced no new diversions and no redistributed water. And the ISC has said, if things continue, another $22 million will be spent by the year 2020, although what the money will produce is unclear.
The steady leakage of Uncle Sam’s cash has been occurring while the state’s 2 water policy entities, the Interstate Stream Commission and the Office of the State Engineer have been working together quietly, if not efficiently. But in recent months, discord has burst noisily forth. The Chair and 2 members of the ISC quit, one of them saying working with the State Engineer was impossible. The 3 resignations left just 4 working members on a 9-person board, so the Governor had to rush to name 2 new members just so the Commission would have a legal quorum.
What they’ll do with the quorum is undefined. But, in addition to the Gila Diversion issue, the Commission and the State Engineer have a plateful of unresolved controversies about NM water.
Laura Paskus is an environmental reporter with long experience in New Mexico and the Southwest. She currently reports for the New Mexico Political Report and is writing a book that’s based on a year-long project, “At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate,” for New Mexico In Depth. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera America, Ms. Magazine, Indian Country Today, The Progressive, Columbia Journalism Review, and High Country News, where she also served as Assistant Editor.