© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      5/3/21
As drought settles in, public officials focus on little stuff
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            When the governor addressed the Economic Forum, a business group, one inevitable question was about water. A developer didn’t think the Legislature had done anything for water, and nothing happens without water, he said. The governor referred vaguely to options, but she didn’t really answer the question.
            Considering how grim the news is – the paltry snowpack, the shrinking reservoirs, the dire predictions – we might have seen some thoughtful new policy or creative legislation this year, but we didn’t. Water was an afterthought.
            The only water bill passed and signed was HB 200. It does an about face on the controversial Gila River diversion project and invests the remaining $80 million in water infrastructure projects for southwestern New Mexico.
            This has been a hot subject for 15 years, with water experts on both sides arguing either that it’s worth the money or that it’s a waste of money to divert the Gila. Bill sponsors think the money is better used on other work to secure long-term water supplies. HB 200 had the support of environmental groups.
            Three bills, which all died, sought changes in the State Engineer’s Office.
            HB 30 focused on water leasing. New Mexico water law requires that an application for a water lease jump through established hoops – public notice, opportunity for protest, and a public hearing on a protested application. In recent years, the State Engineer has issued preliminary approvals of water lease applications that short circuit the usual steps.
            HB 30 would have clarified that a water lease doesn’t take effect until after the scrutiny takes place.
             The New Mexico Acequia Association maintained that the preliminary approvals are unlawful and allowed applicants to begin using the water right before those affected could protest to the State Engineer. If somebody upstream proposed a new use of water or a change in use, it could affect users downstream and impair existing rights, the association said.
            For example, when the State Engineer approved Ruidoso’s application to pump upstream, acequias in Lincoln County didn’t get a public hearing. And the State Engineer authorized Intrepid Potash to lease more than 5,000 acre feet of water on the Lower Pecos River despite potential negative impacts to downstream irrigators. 
            The New Mexico Chamber of Commerce said the bill would have added wasteful and inefficient regulatory requirements.
            The state Department of Transportation said the bill would have delayed contractors’ ability to use leased water on highway improvement projects, potentially resulting in project delays, increased project costs, or even a loss of federal funding.
            HB 95, tabled by the House Agriculture and Water Committee, would have required the State Engineer to weigh climate change implications in making water rights decisions. It also required the agency to develop climate change impact rules, according to the online New Mexico Political Report.
            State Engineer John D’Antonio called the rulemaking provision an unfunded mandate. Besides, he said, the governor’s 50-year state water plan addresses scarcity, and the best way to address climate change is on a broad scale, not bill by bill.
            Business and agriculture groups opposed the bill because it could slow permitting and open the process to litigation.
            HB 197 would have kept district courts from ordering the State Engineer to pay the litigation costs of other parties in appeal cases. The costs come out of the agency budget and affect its work.
            This year, legislators concerned themselves with old law, existing policy, and bureaucratic process. Meanwhile, farmers on tractors massed in Los Lunas to protest Facebook’s planned expansion. As it happens, the company is using far less than it’s allowed and doesn’t plan on using more, but people are nervous.
            We have ample data and don’t need more studies. Where are the big proposals, the latest thinking on storage, evaporation, irrigation, and reuse? Where is the long-term plan?


Sherry Robinson photo

Columns appear here a week after they're sent to newspaper subscribers.

© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       5/3/21
New census data present opportunity for EDD/SRI research
By Harold Morgan

New Mexico Progress
News from the census offers us opportunity that we might be in a position to begin to pursue. The “news” isn’t exactly news. During the ten years between census counts—from 2010 to 2020—we stood defiantly in the face of people and prosperity in the states around us. Our population increased just 2.8% during the decade to 2.12 million as of April 2, 2020.  
The population change for the states around us defines the much-commented donut hole of prosperity: Utah, 18.4%; Texas, 15.9%; Colorado, 14.8%, Arizona, 11.9; Oklahoma, 5.5%. Of the surrounding group, Utah’s population is closest to New Mexico with 3.27 million, nearly all of them around Salt Lake City.
Opportunity comes for a strategic planning effort just started by state government through the Economic Development Department and the renowned SRI International, a consulting firm of Menlo Park, Calif. This new effort, set to be finished by early September in time for meetings of legislative interim committees, will have the advantage of working with the newest and best numbers instead of guessing and pulling from the air, as in the case of the unlamented Jobs Council interim committee of a half dozen years ago. 
The SRI project, introduced April 19 with a virtual briefing, is called, “NM EDD Statewide Comprehensive Economic Strategy.” The project will produce, according to an online the briefing, a “concrete action plan for economic diversification away from the state’s current dependence on the oil and gas sector, retail and public sectors, which can inform legislative and infrastructure strategies.” It promises “unique strategies for (the) state’s nine targeted industry sectors with actionable recommendations.”
Planning diversification depends on the meaning of, say, “public sector.” The state museums, national laboratories are in the public sector as are the military bases, but the administration considers aerospace and defense a “target industry.” Tourism and the much touted outdoor economy contribute significantly to retail. Ignoring for the moment claims about the evils of oil and gas, reduced oil and gas activity in the state will blow a big hole in the flow of dollars to state government.
“This is a state plan,” an EDD staffer commented at the unveiling. I hope the data scroungers realize that elements affecting the state cross the border. For example, all of the Navajo Nation should be considered; Gallup and Farmington are the eastern gateways. Las Cruces, El Paso and Cuidad Juárez are one. Raton and Trinidad, Colo., are twins. Farwell, Texas, is a suburb of Clovis. I understand that Santa Teresa has been included in the early development of the project.
Last fall the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce created a “Statewide Economic Strategic Action Plan.” The new effort has broader scope.
“We want a public-private sector partnership that will grow the economy and jobs for all New Mexicans,” said Rob Black, chamber president and CEO, in an email. “They are incorporating our work, and in some ways the chamber’s plan will likely be distinctive from the EDD/SRI efforts. Our report was focused more on a competitiveness analysis with other states and while it is our understanding the SRI plan will look at this as well, there will be a greater focus on asset analysis and mapping by geographic region and industry sectors which we did not get into in our research,” Black said.
Not to worry. EDD has a new Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Coordinator, everything is to be sustainable, and the schedule is harmonized.