June 12, 2014

Udall Introduces Bill to Help New Mexico Farmers, Communities Address Drought, Water Scarcity

Cosponsored by Sen. Heinrich, bill proposes solutions that have support of major water stakeholders across the state

WASHINGTON - As New Mexico deals with the impact of several years of severe drought, U.S. Senator Tom Udall today introduced major legislation to help the state's communities use water more efficiently and address the impact of water scarcity. His bill, the New Mexico Drought Relief Act of 2014 is cosponsored by Senator Martin Heinrich and has the support of major water stakeholders throughout the state.

"Water is critical to our economy and our ability to grow, but scientists predict that water scarcity will continue years into the future. Doing more with less is a challenge I know we can meet - but we have to work together," Udall said. "Federal government resources for new water projects are increasingly scarce, but by being smart, flexible, and adaptive, we can manage the water we have and continue to grow and thrive. That's the purpose of this bill - to best use available federal resources to help New Mexico become more efficient and effective so that water is there when users need it."

"Water is our most precious resource in New Mexico," Heinrich said. "As the effects of drought and climate change continue to be felt, good water management will be important now more than ever. There is no single solution that's going to address all of our water needs - it's going to take a collaborative effort based on collective ideas. And in a climate like ours, conservation will always need to be part of the solution. This bill is an important step in the effort to provide water managers with the tools and information they need to make good management decisions, and it helps lay down the building blocks of good water governance in a time of increasing water scarcity."

The New Mexico Drought Relief Act of 2014 grew out of a water conference that Udall cohosted with New Mexico State University, which brought together key stakeholders from around the state - including water conservancy districts, farmers and ranchers, municipalities and others - for a heart-to-heart discussion about how to work collaboratively to address water scarcity. In spring of 2013, Udall published a report outlining challenges and solutions that were identified at the conference.

Since then, he has worked to find consensus among the stakeholders on significant drought-response legislation. The bill is part of the result of that work.

The bill authorizes funding and policies to help irrigators improve water delivery and enable communities find new sources of water. And it provides for better ways to use science to understand the impact of drought and predict how it affects communities.

Additionally, the bill directs the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study potential changes to reservoir management along the Rio Grande system in New Mexico. In order to get the ball rolling on the study, Udall today also wrote the NAS, asking it to begin work as soon as possible.

"I'm proud of the fact that this bill has support from irrigators, the state engineer and environmental groups," Udall said. "And I'm looking forward to working collaboratively to pass it through Congress."

Major provisions in the New Mexico Drought Relief Act of 2014 include:

Emergency Funding
The New Mexico Drought Relief Act reauthorizes the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief Act and increases its authorized amount by $100 million. It also authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to use these funds to provide technical and financial assistance for a broad array of drought related relief. For example:
-Exchanges with any water district willing to provide water to meet the emergency water needs of other water districts in return for the delivery of equivalent quantities of water later that year or in future years;
-Maintenance of cover crops to prevent public health impacts from severe dust storms;
-Emergency pumping projects for critical health and safety purposes;
-Activities to reduce water demand consistent with a comprehensive program for environmental restoration and settlement of water rights claims;
-The use of new or innovative on-farm water conservation technologies or methods that may assist in sustaining permanent crops in areas with severe water shortages; and make water available for other beneficial uses;
-Activities reducing or preventing groundwater depletion or promoting groundwater recharge;
-Technical assistance to improve existing irrigation practices to provide water supply benefits in the short term;
-The investigation of, and pilot projects for, brackish water development and aquifer storage and recovery;
-The lining of irrigation ditches and canals to reduce water loss and improve efficiency;
-Assistance to municipal water management entities for water supply planning in preparation for and in response to dry, critically dry, and below normal water year type, including hydrological forecasting, identification of alternative water supply sources; and guidance on potential water transfer partner.

Water Acquisition
The bill provides $30 million in authorization for a water acquisition program across New Mexico, to be managed by the Bureau of Reclamation. This program will allow the Bureau to enhance stream flow to benefit fish and wildlife (including endangered species), water quality, and river ecosystem restoration; and to enhance stewardship and conservation of working land, water, and watersheds.

The bill allows the Secretary of Interior to engage a federally established nonprofit with particular expertise in western water transactions to facilitate the program. It also allows the Secretary to provide incentives for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) and its irrigators to make improvements to make better use of their dwindling water supplies.

Water Conservation
The bill authorizes $18 million and allows the Secretary to provide technical assistance to the MRGCD to make irrigation system improvements and to install metering and measuring devices and check structures that will support a water leasing program.

This section also calls for development of a comprehensive San Acacia river reach program to plan, design, construct and prioritize projects that balance river maintenance, water availability, use and delivery, and other ecosystem benefits. This includes several high-priority projects to turn this reach into a function riparian ecosystem, such as a pumping station at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and a channel realignment project at river mile 83.

Cochiti Dam Deviation
The bill directs the Army Corps of Engineers to continue with its deviation from the Water Control Manual to effect a spring pulse flow for the benefit of silvery minnow and bosque habitat. This section calls for a five-year deviation, contingent on approval of the Cochiti Pueblo and Rio Grande Compact Commission, with a report to Congress.

National Academies of Science (NAS) Study
The bill directs the Secretary of Army and Secretary of Interior to consult with NAS to evaluate reservoir management and water operations along the Rio Grande. This study will provide recommendations for changes within the system. The results of the study will be used by the delegation to inform any congressionally required changes in the system.

Secure Water Act Reauthorization
The bill reauthorizes the Secure Water Act to raise the cap to $300 million (from $200 million), include authorization to plan for or address the impacts of drought, and allow for cost-share waiver for drought projects under the Secure Water Act.

Pueblo Infrastructure Improvement
The bill reauthorizes, extends, and adds money to the Rio Grande Pueblo Irrigation Infrastructure Act for comprehensive MRG Pueblo water infrastructure improvement.

Regional Conservation Partnership Program
The bill clarifies that Regional Conservation Partnership Program/ EQUIP funds, authorized by the Farm Bill, can be used for mitigating the effects of drought on agricultural production and the environment; improving water quality and quantity, including reducing groundwater depletion; restoring, enhancing, and preserving fish and wildlife habitat; and promoting innovative and collaborative conservation tools and approaches.

Conservation Reserve Program
The bill allows the USDA/ FSA to establish priority areas in Conservation Reserve Program and allow funds to be used to address water quantity during drought conditions.