Water projects top wish lists

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By Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press

New Mexico lawmakers are being inundated with requests to help pay for water infrastructure improvements, leaving many frustrated as they try to sort out priorities while the state wrestles with drought.

From contaminated wells to a lack of storage for drinking water, members of the Senate Finance Committee heard Thursday from state and local water officials and fellow lawmakers about the growing needs around the state.

Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, a Sandia Park Republican whose district stretches from Albuquerque to some of central New Mexico’s more rural parts, said the Legislature has been in session only a few days but most of the requests and proposals crossing her desk deal with water.

“It’s certainly something that I have to pay major attention to,” she said. “I represent the Edgewood area, and rather than ask me for a ball field and things like that, they’re asking me for water projects.”

Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, said there are at least a few wells in his northern New Mexico district that are contaminated and need to be addressed.

“There are some problems out there that are predicated on several issues, the drought being at the forefront but also the conditions and aging of our water systems,” he said. “I guess we’re in a perfect storm.”

Never mind party lines, it’s hard to find a lawmaker or local official who didn’t agree with Gov. Susana Martinez when she said in her State of the State address this week that New Mexico’s water infrastructure is “in a state of crisis.”
The problem now is deciding which projects should be tackled first.

Martinez has asked that lawmakers use at least 60 percent of capital outlay funds on water projects this year, but her administration has not put forward any specific list.

Some lawmakers at Thursday’s meeting said more planning is needed to ensure the funding is put to the most beneficial use and that communities can see projects through to the end.

One challenge, according to a recent audit, is that New Mexico lacks coordination when it comes to financing water projects. Another, lawmakers said, is rural utilities and municipalities often don’t have matching funds or the tax base to provide enough revenue to pay for improvements.

While Albuquerque and Santa Fe have been able to plan for future demands, Beffort said she’s worried about other parts of New Mexico.

“I want rural New Mexico to survive with jobs, with attractive main streets and other fabulous things, but part of that is we have to also make sure that we have water,” she said.