By Paula Garcia, Executive Director of NMAA
During a recent meeting of the Water and Natural Resources Legislative Interim Committee, the NMAA gave a presentation on Acequia Infrastructure Funding and Water Rights Issues along with Ralph Vigil of the New Mexico Acequia Commission. Paula Garcia, NMAA Executive Director, gave an overview of acequias and agricultural statistics demonstrating the economic value of acequia agriculture to the rural economy of New Mexico. Her presentation also included an overview of acequia infrastructure funding and some broad policy recommendations. In his presentation, Vigil mentioned that the Commission is working to build its capacity to serve its advisory role to the Legislature.
“Acequia agriculture makes a valuable contribution to their respective rural economies. Therefore, investment in acequia infrastructure is good for New Mexico’s economy,” said Garcia. She went on to provide county by county data on the market value of livestock and crops in acequia-rich counties. Agriculture as a whole contributes $2.5 million to the state’s economy with acequias contributing about $200 million of that total. For example, Rio Arriba County produced about $19 million per year in market value and Mora County had about $12 million per year. For those counties with acequia agriculture, the contribution of $8 million to $70 million per county is a significant driver in local and regional rural economies.
Committee members were interested in learning how acequia projects are funded. At the request of the Chairman, Senator Joseph Cervantes, NMAA prepared a detailed presentation about the funding sources available for acequia infrastructure. Other partners present to provide support during the presentation included Debbie Hughes from the NM Association of Conservation Districts, Xavier Montoya from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and Kim Abeyta from the Interstate Stream Commission.
Paula Garcia, NMAA Executive Director, explained the ISC 90-10 Program, which is funded by the Irrigation Works Construction Fund (IWCF). The IWCF receives about $7 million in recurring revenue from the permanent fund each year. It was created in statute for the purpose of funding the design and construction of irrigation projects. Since around 2008, the expenditures out of the fund have exceeded revenue mainly because the fund was tapped to fund the operations of the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission. The result is that the fund is projected to be depleted in FY18 or FY19.
“We’ve anticipated the depletion of the Irrigation Works Construction Fund for years. Now that we are there, the Legislature will be faced with the decision of how to fund the OSE and ISC as well as how to maintain the existing level of funding for the ISC Acequia Program,” Garcia said as she pointed out that the upcoming legislation session may involve difficult budget decisions. She expressed her hope that a solution could be found that would fund the OSE/ISC while also retaining the ISC acequia funding for the 90-10 Program. The solution may involve use of the General Fund to cover agency operations rather than the IWCF. Representative Paul Bandy presented more detailed information about the history and statutory context of the fund and explained that he has been raising concern about this in past years.
Legislators asked several questions about ongoing acequia issues. Senator Carlos Cisneros expressed that there may be a need to improve notice procedures. In her presentation, Garcia noted that the Governor had vetoed SB 86 (Cisneros) to require that applications for water appropriations or water transfers be posted online. Garcia went on to explain that the existing online notice provided by the OSE is informal and a lack of posting by the agency does not have a legal remedy. She explained that entities that rely on notice to protect their water rights are in favor of improved notice procedures while applicants tend to prefer the status quo.
Senator Pat Woods mentioned that he had received complaints about the time taken to approve acequia engineering designs. Debbie Hughes, Executive Director of the NM Association of Conservation Districts (NMACD), explained that several acequias have experienced delays and increased costs due to archeological clearances required by the State Historic Preservation Division (SHPO). Hughes explained that her organization created a partnership to bring federal Farm Bill dollars to New Mexico for acequia projects. Partners include local SWCDs, the ISC, and the NMAA whose program has resulted in over $3 million for acequia projects. Hughes stated, “We have worked hard to make federal funding available for acequia projects but we are experiencing delays because of the SHPO reviews.” She went on to say that this is a relatively recent issue with archeological clearances in the past being more expedient.
Other questions or comments concerned adjudication and other related issues. Some legislators, including Representative Randall Crowder, wanted more information about whether water rights settlements included funding for acequia infrastructure. Representative Carl Trujillo commented that he was concerned that, while some settlements have funding for acequia-related infrastructure, the Aamodt settlement did not. He went on to say that he was concerned that there has not been enough education to the acequias in the Nambe-Pojoaque-Tesuque Basin about acequia-related provisions in the settlement such as conditions on Section 4 protection on beneficial use of water and the reporting requirements of mayordomos.
Representative Tomas Salazar, who was chairing the meeting, acknowledged the local acequia officials from the Rio de las Gallinas Acequia Association, including William Gonzales and Gabe Estrada. He invited Gonzales to give some brief remarks about ongoing water issues in the Rio Gallinas basin which includes several acequias and the City of Las Vegas. Gonzales gave a brief history of decades long litigation over what is known as the Pueblo Water Rights Doctrine, an obscure theory that cities have expanding water rights. The Supreme Court recognized the doctrine in the 1950s only to have it overturned in the 2000s. However, their ruling remanded the issue of the city’s water right back to district court where it dovetailed with the ongoing re-adjudication of water rights in the Upper Pecos Basin.
Gonzales noted that years of frustration and litigation could have been saved if the City and the acequias could equitably share water from the river. He pointed out that acequias have the senior water rights but that the City of Las Vegas depends on surface water for their municipal supply. His opinion was that the state should encourage a sharing agreement that recognizes acequia seniority but also recognizes the obvious need to serve the city. He said he was hopeful that a new administration at the City of Las Vegas would result in more productive negotiations but that he was uncertain whether that would happen.