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Legislative Summit Surfaces Water and Funding Issues

 By Paula Garcia
NMAA hosted an Acequia Legislative Summit attended by 54 acequia leaders and several area legislators. The purpose of the summit was to discuss issues of importance to acequias from the 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions and to plan ahead for issues that are anticipated during the 2017 session. Acequia leaders from most of the northern counties as well as from southern NM attended. Legislators who attended included Senators Peter Wirth, Linda Lopez, and Carlos Cisneros and Representatives Jim Trujillo, Carl Trujillo, and Stephanie Garcia-Richard. Several other legislators expressed support and interest and specifically requested follow up meetings and proceedings of the Summit.
The primary policy issue discussed water leasing procedures which was the subject of a bill in the 2015 session (SB 493 – Wirth and Nuñez) which clarified the proper procedure for processing a water lease application such that due process should be followed rather than OSE granting a permit for immediate use of water before there is a hearing on a protest. Senator Wirth gave a debrief of the legislation and provided some analysis as well as a summary of the legislative process. The bill passed the Senate but was never heard in the House as it was pending some compromise between various parties involved in the bill. NMAA provided a brief policy memo to attendees with background information and policy recommendations.
In terms of funding, there was extensive discussion about the Capital Outlay issue and the need for acequia infrastructure funding. Before engaging in some strategy discussion about capital outlay, NMAA and partners provided an overview of various funding sources available to acequias in order to provide some context. Norman Vigil and Debbie Hughes were available to share information about the partnership between the NM Association of Conservation Districts (NMACD), the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), and NMAA to provide access to acequias to funding through the USDA Resource Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Kenny Salazar, past president of NMACD and President of the Eastern Rio Arriba Soil and Water Conservation District was available to discuss how local districts are essential partners on acequia projects. Paula Garcia explained the ISC 90-10 program and how the federal and state programs are leveraged into a package. Norman Vigil explained that there is a bottleneck in getting engineering designs completed and suggested that, for some acequias, Capital Outlay is a good option for getting funding to prepare engineering designs in advance of asking for construction funding.
One recommendation from the meeting was to make a special effort to review each of the projects that was vetoed to see where improvements can be made in their overall plan to ensure that each project has a phased approach and appropriate funding for each phase. NMAA committed to assisting acequias with ICIPs and to communicate with legislators about whether those same projects can be funded with other sources (as part of an overall package) and with a recommendation for whether Capital Outlay can be a helpful part of that package. The hope was that those projects could be re-submitted for Capital Outlay in the next legislative session and could possibly earn the support of the Governor if they are well-planned and funded for completion of a phase (i.e. engineering design or completed construction of a functional phase.) Participants at the summit emphasized the value of agriculture and acequias to the state in terms of our capacity for local food production and the livelihoods supported by agriculture.
Another major area of discussion was the status of the Irrigation Works Construction Fund (IWCF). NMAA shared a brief policy memo on the IWCF including fund balance projections that show that the principle of the fund will be depleted by FY2018. The fund is being used to cover the cost of the OSE/ISC including the $1.9 million recurring appropriation that funds the Acequia 90-10 program. Only $7 million of recurring revenue comes into the IWCF and the OSE/ISC budget (including acequia program) is about $14 million. By FY18, the State Legislature will need to find $7 million in General Fund money to keep the OSE/ISC budget whole. NMAA strongly recommends adding $3.5 million General Fund this year and an additional $3.5 million next year to fix the gap and protect the solvency of the fund.
Several other issues surfaced at the summit including a review of past legislation to modify the make-up of various boards and commissions including the Water Trust Board, the Interstate Stream Commission, and others. Representative Carl Trujillo presented about legislation he introduced in previous sessions to create a set aside in the Water Trust Fund for acequia projects, with that funding subject to a streamlines set of ranking procedures. 
There was also substantial discussion about the issue of mega-water transfers including the San Augustin Plains and De Baca county proposals to move tens of thousands of water rights from one region of the state to another (urban) area. The group felt that implications for this type of movement of water are not adequately addressed in the current New Mexico water policy. Some participants mentioned the current regional water planning process and questioned whether the process could adequately address acequias and agriculture because of questions about the methodology used for the common technical platform and the difficulty of sustaining participation from rural farmers and ranchers volunteering their time. NMAA will disseminate proceedings from the summit by the end of May and will make the document available on our website.