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State engineer says progress made on water; more needed  

By Staci Matlock The New Mexican |
December 28, 2005

State Engineer John D'Antonio says his office has made progress in implementing new regulations this year to manage New Mexico's water, but there's still a long way to go. “We're putting the tools in place to deal with drought scenarios," D'Antonio said. The dry winter suggests more problems are ahead. "We're at only 30 percent of normal flows in the Rio Grande right now," he said last week. "With 60-degree temperatures and no storms predicted for the next week, we're not getting a good start to the winter season."

Meanwhile, some opponents to the new regulations haven't changed their mind: They think the rules are ill-conceived and won't be applied fairly.

Lynn Montgomery, a 33-year Placitas farmer and outspoken critic of the state's water management , said he doesn't think the new regulations will change a thing.

"The state is owned by the development industry," said Montgomery, majordomo of the spring-fed Acequia de la Rosa de Castilla. "They're going to destroy the state's water resources."

New Mexico's legal water history dates back well over a century and has become a complex quagmire of court battles, interstate-stream compacts and water-rights debates that have left the state engineer in the middle of it all.

The state engineer is responsible for managing all the state's surface and underground water. He decides who has water rights, who can transfer them and who gets water when it's in short supply. He's also responsible for making sure water promised to other states is delivered.

It is the state engineer’s job to make sure people with the oldest water rights, or senior water rights, get their supply ahead of junior-water-rights holders in times of water shortages — an action called priority administration .

The task is complicated by drought and a growing urban population in a state where senior water rights often belong to rural agricultural villages through their historic irrigation ditches.

In 2004, D'Antonio said, the state's legal and administrative systems for managing water were broken.

“I think what we have is chaos in terms of not being able to enforce priority administration in the state,” he told The New Mexican last year.

By January, the State Engineer's Office was ready to implement new Active Water Resource Management regulations as part of a plan to streamline water actions across the state.

D’Antonio prioritized the basins in the following order to start implementing the new regulations: San Juan Basin, Rio Chama, Lower Rio Grande, Nambé-Pojoaque-Tesuque Stream System, Rio Mimbres, Rio Gallina and Lower Pecos Basin.

Among other steps, the regulations will speed up a process that lets people with junior water rights lease senior water rights for up to two years.

The senior-water-rights holders maintain their priority rights while making money on water they aren't using.

But unlike current water-rights transfers, these temporary ones won't be subject to public hearings or protests.

Acequia associations opposed the lease regulation, saying it gives the state engineer more power than allowed under state law and voids the due process of other water-rights holders.

The regulations outlined a process to hire a water-basin manager; hire water masters to administer water within critical areas of each basin and devise a schedule for distributing water; begin metering private wells; and communicate with the public about the state engineer's actions.

The regulations also allow water users to come up with their own plan for how they'll share water in the lean years and present it to the State Engineer's Office.

D'Antonio said the San Juan Basin has had a water-sharing plan in place for the last three years. Lower Rio Grande water users are working on one, he said.

Among the steps taken this year under the Active Water Resource Management regulations , according to D'Antonio’s office:

In mid-December , the State Engineer's Office mailed brochures to more than 6,000 waterrights holders in the Lower Rio Grande basin alerting them on new metering requirements. All groundwater wells not used for stock tanks or individual homes will have to install meters. People have until March 1 to meet the requirements, set a year ago.

Water masters were hired to help manage water distribution in the Lower Rio Grande, Rio Hondo, Mimbres, Santa Fe area and Carlsbad basin.

The state engineer declared his intent to oversee underground water in six more basins and extend the boundaries of nine other water basins, formally taking the legal steps to manage all the groundwater in the state.

A report on the State Engineer's Office progress on the water regulations is due in early January and will be posted on the agency’s Web site, D'Antonio said.

He said his office is using lessons learned in the Lower Rio Grande and Lower Pecos to get ready for the monster administration challenge in the Middle Rio Grande, where thousands of farmers compete with cities and the native endangered silvery minnow for water.

“The MRG is the 800-pound gorilla,” D'Antonio said.

Money is the missing key now to making some of the regulations work, D'Antonio said.

Funding items his office will lobby for in the upcoming legislative session include:

The Indian Water Rights Fund Act, approved last session by the state, to help pay the state's share of projects for the non-Indian portion of water-rights settlements with Indian tribes and pueblos. No money was appropriated for the fund when it was passed.

The Strategic Water Reserve Fund, another act passed last session. The fund pays for waterrights leases or purchases by the state to meet Endangered Species Act requirements or water compact obligations with other states. Funded at $2.8 million in 2004, the state engineer will try to increase funding.

The federal Arizona Water Rights Settlement over the Gila River stands to pump $66 million into New Mexico if lawmakers here have an approved plan by then to develop new water sources for communities in the southwestern part of the state.

In a year when legislators have extra cash from oil-and-gas revenues to distribute, D'Antonio said, he knows he's still competing for money against other big issues such as Medicaid and education.

“The biggest challenge is educating legislators that water is critical,” he said. Contact Staci Matlock at 470-9843 or smatlock@sfnewmexican .com.

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