If you have been paying attention to the legislature, you’ve probably heard someone say that “water is the sleeper issue of the session.” Those are the words of Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez. That was three weeks ago.
Water isn’t asleep; it’s in a coma. If we don’t do something soon, our future will suffer. Our generation has a responsibility to our kids and grandkids to protect our water resources today, so they will be there for the growing communities and economies of tomorrow.
Bills have been introduced this session to attempt to address this critical issue from every angle.
Two bills related to water were heard in Senate Conservation Committee Thursday evening and more will be heard next Tuesday.
SB 479 Adequate Subdivision Water Supplies (Wirth) and SB 480 Subdivisions Water Permits (Wirth) address how residential subdivisions get their water.
SB 479 would help put an end to a practice called “double dipping.” Currently, large landowners and developers can sever water rights from a property and sell them off at high market values, while constructing major subdivisions that rely entirely on domestic wells for their water supplies. Because domestic wells don’t require a water right, it’s a legal ‘loophole’ that enables double-dipping. Considering that farmers don’t have enough water for their crops and rivers are running dry, ending such loopholes is important.
SB480 strengthens State Engineer evaluation of water availability for new subdivisions by reducing the assessment threshold from 20 parcels or more to 10 parcels or more (where any one of these parcels is less than 2 acres in size.) At the same time, the bill makes subdivision water permits from the State Engineer mandatory, and prevents the State Engineer from basing a permit on water supply from domestic wells, which cumulatively may impair senior water rights holders.
Both bills passed Senate Conservation unanimously and move next to Senate Judiciary Committee.
Senator Peter Wirth said that the legislative leadership addressing the issue of water has made legislators pause and pay attention.
“I’ve been here 9 years and this is the first time we’ve had real conversations about water,” Senator Wirth said after Thursday’s Conservation Committee hearing.
Senator Wirth said he decided to address domestic well issues after seeing a statute passed in Bernalillo County last year.
“Why in the world are we not doing this?” he said. “This is an important first step with domestic wells.”
During Thursday’s committee hearing, Senator Wirth said that New Mexicans are looking to legislators to provide them the tools to deal with the extreme drought.
“Rural and agricultural areas are in real crisis. The more urban areas have not yet realized the magnitude and how connected we all are on the issue of water.”