Nine years ago, New Mexico's Interstate Stream Commission released the latest version of the State Water Plan, a document designed to guide state and local agencies by providing a master plan for water use and conservation in New Mexico. But much has changed since 2003, and now, the ISC—the sister agency to the Office of the State Engineer—plans to release a long-awaited update to the plan.

Although the update may resemble the normal process of state agencies conducting studies and issuing reports, it's actually far more important. As New Mexico's population grows and its climate becomes more uncertain, the State Water Plan is poised to play an instrumental role in how New Mexico maintains a sustainable water supply.

How to respond to global and local climate change is a key question. The OSE/ISC shares jurisdiction over New Mexico's water with many other state agencies and an alphabet soup of federal bodies. Each of New Mexico's 16 water planning regions (see map) produces a regional water plan, and hundreds of legal jurisdictions also have water plans and operate under various provisions of New Mexico statutes. Coordinating the implementation of the State Water Plan will therefore be a big challenge.

According to ISC Planning Director Angela Bordegaray, the commission hopes to begin releasing chapters of the State Water Plan update in August. A possible sequence of release of these chapters may well be: Water-Related Infrastructure and Funding, Statewide Water Supply and Demand, Climate Variability (including drought management), Canadian Basin and San Juan Basin. These chapters will include updated information on current issues, incorporate information from the regional plans and be a means to inform the public on funding needs and key projects.

Within the realm of water infrastructure, public funding is a key issue. In theory, and per New Mexico's constitution, grants and loans for water infrastructure improvements must be "consistent" with the State Water Plan. The updated infrastructure chapter may attempt to turn "in theory" into "in reality," possibly augmenting the role of regional water plans and providing some guidelines on where the priorities lie.

Another likely change in the plan update will be a closer integration of the 12 major river and groundwater basins into the body of the report. This basin-centric approach is becoming increasingly common in other states and makes a lot of sense hydrologically, but presents challenges with respect to implementation since state and local jurisdictions don't fall along hydrologic boundaries. Making this approach work will require time, attention and careful planning from the various bodies that manage New Mexico's water resources.

The basin approach is exciting, especially given potential problems on the Rio Grande due to global warming-related increases in evaporation losses. Looking at larger units (basins) rather than the 16 discrete water regions may provide  better perspective. The basin approach is not unprecedented in New Mexico: A few years ago, a project called Upstream-Downstream fostered collaboration among three Rio Grande regions; expanding the approach to include all of the state's water regions has a good chance of being effective.

When the ISC begins releasing the water plan update, per state law, it will also establish a mechanism for feedback from stakeholders and the public. (Those with a strong interest can join a discussion group I have organized by sending an email to Participating in this process is an opportunity not only to influence the State Water Plan, but also to learn about the complexity of New Mexico's water issues.

With basin-centric water plans, coordinating New Mexico’s many water-managing agencies presents a challenge.
With basin-centric water plans, coordinating New Mexico’s many water-managing agencies presents a challenge.

Sigmund Silber is active in New Mexico water policy issues. He is the chairman of the technology committee of this region’s Water Planning Council, the president of the New Mexico Weather Modification Association, a former Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter water issues chairman and is currently the Sierra Club Northern Group water issues and agriculture issues chairman. Silber also serves on the program committee of the state chapter of the American Water Resources Association.

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