U.S. Water News Online
SANTA FE -- New Mexico should create a ``Strategic River
Reserve'' to acquire water rights to help the state in times of
drought and meet legal demands of interstate water agreements,
according to a report by an independent think tank.
Under the proposal by the Santa Fe-based group, Think New Mexico,
the state would lease or purchase water rights from willing sellers
to provide a ``pool of publicly held water rights on every river
system.'' Water rights also could be donated to the reserve.
The proposed reserve is modeled after the nation's Strategic
Petroleum Reserve, or SPR, which serves as an emergency stockpile of
``Just as the SPR creates a buffer against the volatile politics
of the Middle East and unstable oil supplies, a Strategic Water
Reserve for New Mexico would create a buffer to protect New Mexicans
against legal attacks from neighboring states, the federal courts and
violent fluctuations in water availability,'' the report said.
Rep. Joe Stell, D-Carlsbad, who has long been active on water
issues, said the proposed river reserve makes sense.
``We're headed for a water crisis in several locations of the
state. Time is of the essence,'' Stell said during an interview.
Former State Engineer Tom Turney said the proposed reserve is a
good idea. It's similar to what has been done by the state, he said,
in acquiring water rights on the Pecos River to help meet interstate
compact requirements to deliver water to Texas.
``This is a way to provide water for communities and for
endangered species'' such as the silvery minnow on the Rio Grande,
said Turney, who served as a consultant to the think tank.
The report said the state Water Trust Board should be in charge of
selecting the water rights to acquire. Turney said that's an
important feature because it would place that responsibility with an
independent board representing a cross section of water users -- from
state and local governments to Indian tribes and agriculture.
However, the Interstate Stream Commission should be responsible
for holding those water rights. It also would need to install meters
``wherever public water is acquired to ensure that it remains in the
rivers to meet the public uses for which it was acquired,'' the
The group recommended at least one restriction on the proposed
reserve: no water rights should be acquired from acequias.
``Because of the unique social, cultural and ecological benefits
of acequias ... no purpose is served by transferring water away from
them and to the rivers,'' the report said.
To provide money for the acquisition of water rights, the think
tank recommended that 10 percent of the state's yearly severance tax
bond financing be earmarked for the water reserve. Currently, 10
percent of the bond capacity -- about $10 million this year -- is set
aside for water projects, such as water supply pipelines. The bonds,
which are backed by severance tax revenues, typically are used to
finance capital improvements across the state, including projects
selected by legislators in their districts.
Another financing option is to impose a fee on the transfer of
water rights. The State Engineer's Office reviews and approves water
Stell, the chairman of the House Agriculture and Water Resources
Committee, said it's important that surface and groundwater rights be
acquired for the proposed river reserve. Many communities rely on
groundwater and stockpiled water rights in a reserve could help
municipalities avoid a ``priority call,'' in which the state engineer
would curtail so-called junior water rights to meet the demands of
other water users, such as Texas in the case of the Pecos River.
``A Strategic River Reserve will not solve every aspect of New
Mexico's water crisis, but it would represent important and timely
progress toward a balanced and sustainable water policy for New
Mexico,'' the report concluded. ``Moreover, by establishing a
Strategic Water Reserve, we would not only be protecting our rivers,
but all of us who depend on them.''
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