Over lunch, a commissioner and an engineer confront an elephant

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During lunch at yesterday’s “Hard Choices” water conference, there were a couple of awkward moments.

Two of the keynote speakers during lunch were U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor and New Mexico’s State Engineer, Scott Verhines. As KUNM reported a few weeks ago, those two agencies have been caught up in something of a water battle on the lower Rio Grande.

(That coverage was expanded here on Earth Air Waves, too. You can read more about the state’s concerns about a federal grab of groundwater here.)

In New Mexico, the state controls both groundwater and surface water. But the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation–though the dams, reservoirs, and canals it has built–is required to deliver water to users, including farmers in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and the lower Rio Grande.

Now, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer has attested that the federal government is seeking control of the state’s groundwater.

After running through a list of priorities for the federal water management agency (I had no idea that about one-third of the agency’s budget goes toward environmental restoration) and talking about the challenges of climate change (“wherever you stand on the issue, it’s really not a controversial issue for Bureau of Reclamation”), Connor spoke of what he called the “elephant in the room.”

“Overall, we’ve lost our collective way in how we’re dealing with that issue in southern New Mexico,” Connor said, adding that drought has exposed every issue that might have ever arisen to the surface when it comes to water management. Connor explained that in order to meet its obligations to farmers, it has to rely on groundwater pumping. And lately, that has meant increased groundwater pumping.

“We are not claiming all the groundwater in southern New Mexico,” he said. “The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is not authorized to do that.” He added that the agency is trying to protect the project’s interests.

“Litigation is highly unlikely to resolve the issues in the manner that we need to address these issues,” he said. “We ought to disarm the lawyers…and understand the relationship between groundwater and surface water.”

Standing at the podium moments later, New Mexico’s State Engineer Scott Verhines spoke to the issue, as well.

“On the lower Rio Grande, we heard a lot from Commissioner Connor on our collective efforts, and I won’t get into that too much,” he said. “I find it really disturbing that we have farmers against farmers in the lower Rio Grande Valley, farmers pitted against municipalities, and the state pitted against one of our best partners in other areas, the Bureau of Reclamation.”

He added that he and Interstate Stream Commissioner Director Estevan Lopez look forward to sitting down with him.

The discussion didn’t exactly clear the air, but for those of us who have been watching this battle play out, it definitely made for an interesting lunchtime.

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