[Editor's Note: This is part one of a multi-part series on the Interim Legislative Water and Natural Resources Committee, which concluded its meetings on Wednesday, Sept. 6 at about noon.]

By Mary Alice Murphy

The second session, Regional and State Water Plan Progress, of the two-day meeting of the Interim Legislative Water and Natural Resources Committee, which met at the Grant County Veterans Memorial Business and Conference Center on Sept. 5 and 6, 2017, discussed the water plans and how they link together.

Lucia Sanchez, Interstate Stream Commission water planning manager, began the session. "I understand water planning and the benefits of water planning in New Mexico." She cited her experience in the field.

"We want to move forward with the state plan, using the regional water plans that have been completed and accepted by the ISC," Sanchez said. "Why do we need a plan? Because the state's water needs are great and the supply is limited."

She noted that New Mexico was late getting into the water planning process. "In 1987 was the inception of planning in the state. We have 16 water-planning regions and a handbook to guide the plans. We have been working on the most recent plan for 2½ years with some funding from the Water Trust Board. The first plan took us eight years to complete. It began after the Legislature passed the 2003 Water Planning Act. Only one plan before this one has been completed."

Sanchez cited the reasons for planning include stewardship and protection of New Mexico water resources, to meet future water needs, incorporate public input on water management policies, integrate water quality with water management, provide strategic plans for policy and project development and forecast funding needs for program implementation.

The regional water plans address technical assessment of surface water and groundwater resources, drought vulnerability, projects of future growth and water demand, strategies and alternatives for meeting future needs, had no authority to change laws or water rights, and are the catalyst for ongoing communication among stakeholders.

"Now that we have the 16 completed plans, our intent is to put them into the state plan," Sanchez said. "We encourage the regions to collaborate. All have challenges and opportunities. The $400,000 from the Water Trust Board in funding helped the ISC move the plan forward."

She said in the first plan, each region presented a different type plan, which made it difficult to incorporate into a state plan. "With this plan, we used a common framework to identify common goals. It was a public planning process, with each region collaborating with local stakeholders and using facilitating consultants, which, in the case of the Southwest Water Planning Region, were Rosemary Romero, contracted facilitator, and Joanne Hilton, contracted hydrologist.

Sanchez said the handbook looked at the disparities among the regions. She said during the planning process, seven key collaborative project types led the progress, with data collection being the top priority, followed by watershed management, water infrastructure, water conservations, planning process, water policy and economic development. "We hope the plan becomes a usable tool for water users."

As conditions change, the regional plans can be updated to address population growth, unregulated development of deep saline aquifers, proposed inter-basin transfers, aging infrastructure and managing environmental mandates.

Since March 2017, the ISC has developed a charter objective and guidelines. It has also looked at a comparative analysis of state water planning efforts in seven western states.

"We worked with the Water Trust Board for funding," Sanchez said. "Compared to other western states, we fund planning with a drop in the bucket. We collaborate with other agencies, including the New Mexico Environment Department, Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, agriculture users and others.

"Before we're done, we may need to consult with others to achieve interagency cooperation," she said. "We are shooting for the summer of 2018 for completion. We are in the process of developing a comprehensive background report. We have engaged with stakeholder feedback and sent information to the legislators asking for feedback and input. We had a 60 percent return from legislators."

The team also created a white paper discussing whether the boundaries should be hydrogeological or political boundaries. "Some suggested the boundaries should be watersheds, others said to leave them as they are and some suggested other boundaries. We have no resources to change the boundaries."

One of the documents created from stakeholder input in each region was the PPP or projects, programs and policies. "A benefit of the PPP is the possibility to score higher for Water Trust Board funding. We have critical tasks ahead."

She said the statewide Town Hall put on by New Mexico First would take place in Albuquerque Dec. 13 and 14.

"We will release a draft plan for input," Sanchez said. "It will link everything together."

She reminded the legislators that state water planning "lacks sufficient funds. We appreciate the help from the Water Trust Board and the collaboration of other groups. When the plan hits the streets, the implementation work begins. We need to partnership with the COGs (council of governments), WRRI (Water Resources Research Institute at New Mexico State University, New Mexico Tech, and the Utton Center."

"We want the State Water Plan to be a living document," Sanchez concluded. "And we need consistent funding."

Priscilla Lucero, Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments executive director, reported on the four-county plan of southwest New Mexico, incorporating representatives from the four counties of Grant, Luna, Hidalgo and Catron. She presented some recent water planning history. In 2006, Grant County, Silver City, Santa Clara, Bayard and Hurley together formed the Grant County Water Commission to work together to develop water sustainability.

The water commission began to develop priorities. First identified was that Hurley owned no water rights and had an agreement with then Phelps Dodge to provide the town water only through calendar year 2018. Silver City owned 193 acre-feet of water near the Grant County Airport that could be used to satisfy Hurley's needs. "I will elaborate more tomorrow on the Grant County Regional Water Supply Project. "

"That is why is it so important for the COG to be involved, because we're on the ground, helping groups fund their water planning," Lucero continued. "We want to be able to annually update our projects. To see the outcomes helps build consistency among all the planning groups, so we have the ability to say the proposals are well thought out."

She said about 40 stakeholders took part in the Southwest Regional Water Plan. "We wanted to share the needs to support small water organizations, which don't have the capacity to fund administration, financial audits and governance, as well as drought mitigation.

"I will elaborate more tomorrow on the Grant County Regional Water Supply Project, " Lucero concluded.

The first comment came from Senator Peter Wirth, Senate majority floor leader: "I have a concern with the importance of these plans and underfunding for them. It doesn't do much good to have a plan, if we cut the Water Trust Board funding, which we did last year, and they can't fund anything."

Sanchez said because the ISC was not fully funded for the planning, without the $400,000 from the Water Trust Board, the plan would not have happened. "We didn't have the staff, so the ISC relied on consultants. Identifying the partnership with the COG here was important. She's the hub of information, so the ISC leveraged its relationship with the COG."

Wirth asked how the COG had buy-in. Lucero said: "I have been working with all these committees for many years. We got participation and buy in from municipalities, county governments, environmentalists, ranchers, and members of the public. The COG already has the local governments involved and we just added to them. I'm already creating a lot of these funding requests. We have a lot of needs, especially with the special districts. They are all volunteers. I have to share education with them on how to get dollars."

She said House Memorial 1 asked for a task force by the ISC to address the capacity problem of special districts.

Sanchez said: "ISC Director Deborah Dixon, before her departure, and I met about the task force. We don't have the people or resources to develop the task force, especially with our summer of 2018 deadline for the state water plan."

Wirth noted that he recognizes the need for water planning. "Add this to the list of things that need funding. It's on us in the Finance Committee."

Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell brought up the town hall that would be held in Albuquerque. "I understand it is easier to get people involved in Albuquerque, but just in our water planning region, some had to drive 180 miles to get to a meeting. If we have the town hall meeting in Albuquerque, I will have to drive four hours to get there."

Sanchez said she understood the difficulty of getting to Albuquerque. "Our funding includes integrating the regional plans and incorporating them into the state plan. I'm looking to get comments through social media, the Water Dialogue and coming to you. We don't have the capacity to have 29 meetings around the state."

Ezzell said some meetings are held on the internet, and some people don't have access to internet. "It's a hardship."

Sanchez said the planning process used flyers and snail mail on the Rio Chama project. "We used the Bureau of Land Management, tribal entities and federal agencies."

Ezzell said her district is "getting heartburn from FEMA meeting kind of in secret to take control of the two rivers in the district. They had enough people there in opposition to what they planned that FEMA didn't answer questions. They were basically saying, 'we, as the federal government, are going to take your job away from you.' We still have regions in the state that are not adjudicated. Test and augmentation wells were drilled in one area and caused 13 farmers to go dry. Inter-basin water transfers are another issue."

Sanchez said the transfers are a big issue in some parts of the state. "The state water plan is a living document, but is not intended to break any laws. Getting into the nitty-gritty of these issues is not part of the state water plan."

Ezzell said: "Taking from one region to benefit another is a detriment to the first region. And a statewide meeting gives me concern, because urban areas don't understand our rural areas."

Sanchez said municipalities and counties have other statutory means to manage their land use. "Water and land are tied together."

Rep. Larry Larrañaga proposed asking for a moment of silence for the recent passing of Luciano "Lucky" Varela, a long time member of the Legislature. "We all learned from him. He dedicated his life to public service," Larrañaga said.

Rep. Carl Trujillo said he father knew Varela well. "Lucky was the most knowledgeable man I knew. He loved this state."

Rep. Paul Bandy said Varela knew more about state government than anyone else.

Rep. Rodolpho "Rudy" Martinez said he had served with Varela on the Appropriations Committee. "Most of all, I remember his friendship, and the guidance he gave to us, as well as his hard work for New Mexico. He will be greatly missed."

Wirth said when he came into the Legislature in 2003, he remembers "Lucky Varela teaching every freshman on how appropriations worked. His passing is a big loss for Santa Fe and the state."

Sen. Mary Kay Papen said Varela would lie in state at the State Capitol on Thursday.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes said he wanted to remind everyone that "Lucky had a wicked sense of humor. He called me Thomas, like the apostle, because I was always doubting everything, he said. I ask for a moment of silence."