Middle Rio Grande irrigation district and state reach a one-of-a-kind formal agreement

The irrigation officials in New Mexico and Albuquerque have recently approved a groundbreaking cooperative agreement. This agreement will focus on the management of the Rio Grande, addressing both emergency situations as well as short-term and long-term needs.

The Interstate Stream Commission unanimously approved a decision last week to authorize its staff to enter into an agreement with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. This agreement was officially signed on Monday evening after receiving approval from the irrigation board.

According to Hannah Riseley-White, the executive director for the Interstate Stream Commission, this agreement will enhance flood prevention, improve water conveyance, fulfill interstate legal obligations, and create habitats for endangered species in the Middle Rio Grande.

During the March 5 meeting, she expressed her belief that the commitment to collaboration and problem-solving is demonstrated by the actions we take together.

According to the packet provided to commission members, a five-year agreement has been established to facilitate communication and coordination between state officials and irrigation district officials. The agreement will also outline the responsibilities of both parties in this partnership.

The Interstate Stream Commission, a division of the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, has been entrusted with the important responsibility of safeguarding, conserving, developing, and investigating the surface waters of New Mexico, including rivers, streams, and lakes. With its wide-ranging authority, the Commission is dedicated to ensuring the sustainable management and utilization of these precious resources.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, located in Albuquerque, is responsible for managing irrigation for the area stretching from Cochiti Dam to the Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge. According to Casey Ish, the Conservation Program Supervisor, the district covers approximately 55,000 to 58,000 acres of irrigated land and serves around 11,000 active irrigators.

The irrigation district and the state agency’s top officials expressed their satisfaction with the agreement, as it formalized a longstanding partnership that has spanned over two decades.

According to Riseley-White, the state and district are grappling with a convergence of challenges. On one hand, they are dealing with the impacts of climate change, which are leading to an increase in wildfires and floods in the region. On the other hand, they are faced with the difficulty of sending water downstream while adhering to legal agreements. Additionally, there is a pressing need to create habitats for endangered species.

Last week, Jason Casuga, Chief Engineer and CEO for the irrigation district, informed commissioners that the agreement would assist in tackling challenging areas within the irrigation district’s jurisdiction. As federal funds continue to flow in from infrastructure and climate-adaptation projects, this collaboration will play a crucial role in addressing these issues.

The partnership is essential in order to fulfill our legal obligations to users downstream in Texas and Mexico. These obligations were made in treaties and a longstanding agreement that dates back almost 80 years.

Water managers in the Rio Grande basin are taking a proactive approach to address the imminent water crisis. They are adopting an “all hands-on deck” approach to ensure that New Mexico can uphold its water deliveries within the Middle Rio Grande under the Rio Grande Compact. This urgent action is necessary to mitigate the challenges posed by the looming water scarcity.

What’s in the cooperative agreement?

The partnership agreement outlines five projects that are anticipated, but it does not provide specific details regarding costs or funding sources. These aspects will be addressed in subsequent contract negotiations.

According to Riseley-White, the parent agreement enables the state to expedite the transfer of federal, state, and local funds into contracted projects.

Five Exciting Joint Ventures to Look Forward To

    1. Buying and renting heavy equipment for floodplain restoration and vegetation removal for “improvements in conveyance” in the Isleta Reach and other Middle Rio Grande reaches
    2. Contracts for “bosque rehabilitation, channel maintenance, infrastructure,” in the Isleta Reach and other non-specified Middle Rio Grande reaches
    3. Contracts for environmental monitoring, scientific studies and engineering
    4. Development of an Isleta Reach River Management Plan for the active river channel and floodplain on the southern boundary of Isleta Pueblo to the San Acacia Diversion Dam, in “cooperation with other governmental agencies and stakeholders”
    5. Evaluate anticipated critical threats in the Isleta Reach for immediate action

Concerns raised by Interstate Stream commissioners

The board members expressed concerns about how the agreement could potentially affect the relationships with other irrigation districts and tribal governments of Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Sandia, and Isleta Pueblos.

During the March 5 meeting, Phoebe Suina (Cochiti), a hydrologist and board member, inquired about the consultation process with the six middle Rio Grande Pueblos. She specifically asked if they have been included or will be formally included in future project planning or agreements.

Riseley-White emphasized that the state is committed to actively involving all relevant parties, including tribes, in specific projects.

“It is crucial for us to effectively engage with the six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos as they are important partners in determining the necessary approach,” she expressed.

In response, Casuga stated that the projects will focus on benefiting all middle Rio Grande users.

According to him, engaging individually with the constituents who would be affected by the project specifics and its associated funding is necessary.

Greg Carrasco, a farmer and rancher from Las Cruces and a member of the board, inquired about the potential impact of this agreement on the state’s relationship with other irrigation districts.

According to Riesely-White, the agreement does not affect any other relationships.

State Engineer Mike Hamman spoke to the commission, referring to the agreement as a “starting point” for the state to collaborate with other irrigation districts, Pueblos, and water users in addressing shared interests and maximizing federal funding.

Upcoming settlements in adjudication for the water rights of the six middle Rio Grande Pueblos and the pending settlement agreement in the Rio Grande U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit between Texas and New Mexico may have operational impacts on the Rio Grande and Rio Chama, according to Hamman.

According to him, meeting the legal agreements to ensure the flow of water in rivers to recipients presents a challenge for both entities. He emphasized the need for a symbiotic relationship in order to address this challenge effectively.

According to Hamman, we are currently facing a situation where there is a deficit in water supply, which could potentially lead to a violation. He specifically mentions the Middle Rio Grande, which owes approximately 25,000 acre feet of water to Elephant Butte Dam for users downstream in Texas and Mexico.

According to Hamman, both the irrigation district and the state are expressing their concerns regarding the construction delays on the El Vado Dam and the subsequent impact it is having on the water flow downstream.

Suina emphasized the importance of including the Pueblos in future projects, highlighting the historical neglect of their land and water stewardship in previous water planning endeavors.

According to her, Pueblo governments have strongly opposed the claim that the middle Rio Grande is “near the end of its life cycle,” emphasizing the vital importance of the river itself.

Suina expressed her desire to foster engagement and collaboration, viewing the agreement as a positive step in that direction. However, she emphasized the importance of not overlooking the needs of Pueblo communities.

Suina supported the proposal by voting yes, but she also added a comment to her vote.

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