Water, Acequias, and Funding at the State Legislature

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DSCN0084Water and Acequias at the State Legislature. Water issues have received some attention from policymakers in recent weeks because of mounting pressures related to drought and water scarcity. The Senate, in particular, has have two major briefings on water policy by the State Engineer and Interstate Stream Commission including a joint session of the Senate Conservation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee and more recently a presentation for the Senate Finance Committee.

Acequia Funding at the State Legislature.
As always, the New Mexico Acequia Association closely monitors water legislation and promotes some carefully selected legislative priorities. Acequia policy priorities are focused on local efforts to improve irrigation through acequia repairs, rehabilitation and improvements. Many acequias throughout the state are responding to water shortages and drought by making improvements such as replacing aging infrastructure including diversion dams and leaky headgates. Increasingly, acequias area also looking to line or pipe sections of their acequia to reduce seepage and improve delivery to farm headgates.

Funding for acequia infrastructure, as for any local governments, is uncertain. The Capital Outlay process as it has historically operated has been a mixed blessing for acequias. On one hand, the system that allows each legislator to allocate a small “slice of the pie” in his or her respective district affords the opportunity for acequias to access those resources. On the other hand, this same system also sometimes results in partial funding for more complex projects sometimes resulting in delays in design and construction until adequate resources are secured, sometimes taking years.

This year, NMAA is promoting acequia capital outlay requests being mindful that there are possibly changes unfolding in the process. For example, the executive branch has strongly encouraged the completion of Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plans so that funding requests are well planned and they can be evaluated for readiness to proceed. Both the executive and legislative leaders are asking whether projects have designs as part of their assessment of whether the project is ready for construction funding. Increasingly, acequias are preparing Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plans. A review of projects on the legislative website and the DFA ICIP website shows that some half of the requests have corresponding ICIPs. The total requested in acequia capital outlay projects for FY2014 is about $7 million (http://www.nmlegis.gov/lcs/BillFinderCO.aspx). Based on experience, we can expect that only a portion of this list will be appropriated capital outlay funds by their respective legislators.

There is another $3.5 million on a waiting list at the Interstate Stream Commission for the highly sought after 80-20 cost share program. Despite this long waiting list, the tentative budget proposed by the Legislative Finance Committee cuts the ISC Acequia Construction Program from $1.9 million to $1.0 million, mainly due to underspending by the ISC in the past three years. These funds come from the Irrigation Works Construction Fund which generates revenue from state lands. The $1.9 earmark for acequias has been in place for several years. NMAA is proposing the following to the NM State Legislature:

• Retain the $1.9 million funding level
• Change the 80-20 cost share program to a 95-5 cost share
• Use the funds from the Irrigation Works Construction Fund for irrigation projects rather than agency operations

More detail about this program is available here. NMAA is proposing language in HB 2 that will address the first two in the list above. Moving away from use of the fund for agency operations may occur incrementally over years as the budget restores general funding for the Office of the State Engineer and Interstate Stream Commission. NMAA is working at the State Legislature to bring attention to this issue in the hope that the Irrigation Works Construction Fund can be a recurring source of funds for acequia irrigation projects for years to come.