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State plans formal request for drought funds

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The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission has decided that two of its lead members will make a formal request of the U.S. Department of the Interior for drought management funding for the state.

The amount of the potential funding request was not discussed during an April 30 meeting where commission members present voted unanimously to forward the request to federal officials.

The commission decided that State Engineer John D’Antonio Jr. and commission chair, Mike Sanchez, also the executive director of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, will forward the request for statewide assistance to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“The request should be ready next week,” Sanchez said. “Timing will depend on several layers of review in state government.”

He and Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the Interstate Stream Commission, said that the request likely would ask for emergency aid for farmers and long-term project funding.

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“Short-term would be for those things like drought relief assistance funds to farmers — help them make it through this year — so that the economic impacts are not so severe that they can no longer farm,” said Schmidt-Petersen. “Longer term, you know, a whole bunch of bigger issues, potentially through the infrastructure initiative that is being pushed by the Biden Administration or maybe other avenues.”

Sanchez said an example of a long-term infrastructure project would be channel maintenance.

Schmidt-Petersen explained to commission members that he and other state officials have been talking with the Bureau of Reclamation and congressional leaders about funding, but that he believes now is the time for the commission to make a direct request to the senior federal officials.

“We are kind of behind when it comes to these official requests for drought management support,” Schmidt-Petersen said. “And with Secretary Haaland and Vilsack basically taking on a role in that regard, the opportunity to kind of raise that issue — with the chairman working hand-in-hand with the state engineer in his role really as the chair of the New Mexico Drought Task Force — to elevate these issues across New Mexico.”

Schmidt-Petersen explained that the entire Rio Grande watershed is experiencing significant issues as a result of drought and that the Pecos River has problems “in spades.”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a collaborative effort to document precipitation in the United States, all of New Mexico is experiencing some level of drought, with a large portion of the state in the “exceptional,” or most severe, drought category. That includes all of Chaves County and the vast majority of southeastern New Mexico.

On Dec. 9, 2020, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an emergency drought declaration.

At the regional level, concerns about whether the Pecos River will have enough water to meet legal obligations to provide a certain amount of water to Texas and to meet the needs of southeastern New Mexico residents, farmers and businesses has led the Carlsbad Irrigation District to ask that the Office of State Engineer make decisions about water usage based on priority rights to the water.

The Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District, which covers a large portion of Chaves County, has stated its intentions to guard against a priority call. If the State Engineer decided to administer by priority rights, it is possible that PVACD residential, agricultural and business members could be asked to reduce water usage or refrain from using any water until the Carlsbad Irrigation District users have received their annual allotments.

The Office of the State Engineer has met privately with representatives of both groups and has not yet made a decision on the matter, according to commission staff.

An Interior Department agency said that drought assistance is being made available to state and local entities.

“The Bureau of Reclamation is working to deliver a much-needed proactive approach for drought assistance to farmers, tribes and communities impacted by ongoing water shortages,” said Public Affairs Specialist Amee Andreason. “We are currently coordinating on funding assistance under Reclamation’s WaterSMART Program and will continue to support state, local and tribal governments to address the needs of communities suffering from drought-related impacts.”

Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.