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Water Planning in the South West

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Making Bio-Regional Water Planning a Reality

In the Middle Rio Grande region of New Mexico water planning is taking on a significant character that is open and inclusive. The Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) approved the 50-year plan worked on for over 9 years by the Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly. We worked with the regional Water Resources Board of the Middle Region Council of Governments (MR COG) and maintained the direction and intent of the plan. It has been approved by the 15 municipalities of the region, the regional water utility authority, the irrigators' conservancy district and the flood control authorities of the two counties in the region, some with particular caveats included in their memoranda of agreement. Hundreds of individuals from environmental groups, advocacy groups, real estate interests, water managers of utilities, planners, administrators and specialists in hydrology and geo-hydrology have participated and actively engaged the communities in the region for input on recommendations and preferred scenarios.

The result is a plan over 400 pages long with 43 recommendations, and a preferred scenario. In the implementation of the plan, Water Assembly officers are working on stakeholder advisory committees such as the Ad Hoc Committee of the Interstate Stream Committee (ISC), the Water Resources Advisory Committee (WRAC) of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, the Albuquerque Reach Watershed Advisory Group and the Water Resources Board of the Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments. These advisory committees are integrated with governmental entities and play an important role in providing real input into their decisions.

One should never presume that these advisory committees are opposed to a Green agenda or that citizen activist Greens should not be likewise considered as candidates for these positions. Even further, Greens can play an active role in the political appointments within the Interstate Stream Commission, the appointed/elected positions (taken from the City Council, the County Commission and the Mayor) within the Utility Authority or the elected officials of the irrigators' Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. These are precisely the types of low-profile local positions that make significant policy decisions regarding water administration. Focused electoral activity in these bodies could have huge dividends in the construction of a system of water management driven by stakeholder mandates.

New Mexico state law authorizing the development of regional water plans alludes to the active role of the 16 regional plans that have been developed or are in the process of being developed. The experience of the Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly would seem to suggest that there is a need in this enabling legislation to make the regional planning process directly linked to the state legislature's power to develop and fund appropriate legislation or the executive's power to administer the state waters for enacting and implementing the plan once agreed upon by stakeholders. Otherwise, there remains structural issues and, in this case, opposition by full-time staffers, as well as elected officials, of the municipal entities. This is one lesson of this experience that became fairly evident during the development of the plan. MR COG demonstrated continual opposition to growth management aspects of the plan's recommendations and continuously worked to delete them. Further, as the entity that was designated to receive state funds, it was hardly possible to avoid this conflict and still provide the science and input needed to construct a sound plan.

In New Mexico, the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority was established to empower an entity in a regional context. It arose at the same time as the state legislature developed a plan for a unification of the city of Albuquerque and the county of Bernalillo. This effort has been defeated in the referenda three times because of concern by county residents about sprawl and uncontrolled growth. The enacting legislation for ABCWUA designated three city councilors from Albuquerque, three county commissioners from Bernalillo County and the Mayor of Albuquerque to sit on the board. Future legislation in other states should anticipate the problems when a political entity with authority is established that is not elected directly by the people. Besides the loopholes it creates in accountability within the Authority, it really is not establishing a character to the Authority based on its functions and purposes. Taking individuals from the city and the county does not increase the likelihood that the board will be made of qualified water managers, specialists or advocates of the various stakeholder interests. The key here is to provide such entities established by the state, such as the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, to be popularly elected and that representatives be designated to represent particular "stakeholder interests" rather than districts. Ideally, such a scenario would have the Authority established within a given watershed and that stakeholder groups would be apportioned a given number of representatives.

Proposals dealing with issues ranging from water quality to conjunctive management of surface and ground waters, and from establishing funding sources for water programs to increasing water supply and decreasing water demand have all been incorporated into the recommendations. Conservation of urban individual and large-scale users' withdrawals, improving irrigation efficiency of agricultural users, and development of growth management in urban areas to integrate land use and transportation planning with water management are addressed by the plan and provide it with a holistic approach. These policy issues provide new relevancy to the Green presence in elections.

In the Middle Rio Grande, there are two of the largest cities in New Mexico, Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. These cities supply over 500,000 people solely from underground water supplies. Combined these cities use 151,000 acre ft. per year. Agriculture getting its supply of water from the Rio Grande River consumes 298,340 acre ft. per year. In the Water Supply Study Phase III prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Interstate Stream Commission it was summarized: "Both Base Case and Sensitivity model results indicate that water demands in the Middle Rio Grande region currently exceed the available renewable water supply by a minimum of 71,000 acre-feet per year (groundwater withdrawals that have not yet impacted the river), and perhaps by as much as 110,600 acre-feet per year. Despite that these results are accompanied by uncertainty as noted above, the analysis suggests that New Mexico faces significant challenges with respect to meeting both water demands in the Middle Rio Grande and Compact obligations in future years." These challenges are the issues of election campaigns, the substance of policy decisions and duties of elected officials.

The Great Urban User vs. Economic Development Conflict:
Or is it all just about Urban vs. Rural?

Three additional constituency groups were formed within the Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly in 2001, four years after the formation of the Assembly. These groups reformed the structure of the Assembly. They were added to the already existing groups of specialists, managers and reconfigured a broader group for those impacted by water management. (Brown, pp. 201, 202) These groups were defined as: Agricultural, Cultural and Historical Users; Environmental Advocates; and Urban Users and Economic Development Advocates (UUEDA).

These constituency groups provided self-defined structures that were represented in the Action Committee, the governing body of the Assembly. All constituency groups were given five representatives on the Action Committee. This provided for advocates of the various stakeholder interests to provide input into the writing of the plan, to review the recommendations being proposed and to provide representation of the various stakeholders in the decision-making process of the Water Assembly.

The composition of the UUEDA group was to prove problematic from the beginning. Once engaged in the water planning process, developers, real estate attorneys, and commercial realtors took an active interest in seeking to dominate UUEDA's representation on the Action Committee. This brought them into conflict at a very basic level with urban users, such as myself, who represented Greens in the region as stakeholders, and others who were urban residents in Albuquerque. The validity of such a representation of urban Greens within the Constituency Group structure was based on the various electoral results in elections ranging from City Council to Congress and the Presidency. This should put to rest the continued cry of liberals not to run candidates for higher offices and demonstrates a substantive payback in the willingness to run Greens for Congress and the Presidency.

For two consecutive years, the developers were able to sustain a monopoly of representatives by sending people to the Annual Assembly where elections were held. In spite of an effort to mediate these "stacked" elections, initiated by myself, a monopoly of representation by developers on the Action Committee existed from the Annual Meeting in 2001 to the Annual Meeting in 2003. Urban users and Greens continued to present their perspectives within UUEDA and, as an Alternate, I was often able to cast an UUEDA vote at the Action Committee meetings. It is important in such activity that maximum presence be facilitated to stakeholders not tied to immediate economic interests. In 2003, the developers were defeated in a similar effort and two non-development advocates, one from the National Council of Churches and one from 1000 Friends of New Mexico, were elected to the Action Committee.

UUEDA was the most stable and functional constituency group of the five throughout this time, even though some urban users left while others came forth. Maintaining a consistent involvement in these Constituency Groups has its benefits. The Environmental Advocates Constituency Group had few people involved over the long-term and it lacked organizational cohesion. This resulted in the omission of recommendations for purely environmental purposes being included in the plan. On the other hand, urban users and economic developers played a role in many of the recommendations addressing growth management. Also, lacking within the plan were proposals addressing legal issues of water rights holders in the region. Clearly, while it was an individual decision in this case, there were obvious discussions that local party leadership, or a working group, could have had that would have benefited the work's progress and assured attention to the various aspects of the plan.

Policy discussions and reviews of projected usage created many heated discussions between stakeholders. Sustained advocacy by urban users, agricultural, environmental, specialists and managers developed into a working coalition internally that effectively negated plans tailored solely to promote real estate interests within the Action Committee. That occurred because these groups accepted values that included the preservation of agriculture in the region. Public opinion on this matter was demonstrated by a public opinion poll sponsored by UNM, which showed agricultural use as the 2nd in priority of most in the region. This represents a distinct model for Greens running for public office and proposes a new voter alignment of political support for the future that goes beyond the existing Democrat and Republican models, cutting into both.

Going with the Flow Instead of Against It

Now that this process is merging with the efforts of local municipalities in the implementation and monitoring of the plan, developers have moved in search of other, more hospitable venues. They left making a statement declaring that they see no water "crisis" facing the region. They have moved on to happier hunting grounds where they will have more influence through lobbying and contact with public officials. Unfortunately for them, they left little behind in the plan itself. Their inability to make significant inroads in the plan's development should be a flashing light to discouraged activists who are so accustomed to defeat by such interests within existing governmental entities. It also introduces new structures as emerging bioregional political entities based on stakeholder representation.

All things considered it was a very productive exercise and stands on its own as a process that effectively promoted green values and integrated them with bioregional planning. Bernalillo County has developed a Draft Water Conservation Plan that explicitly traces its proposals to the regional water plan and is the first governmental entity to demonstrate a linkage between the plan and the development of appropriate ordinances and regulations to implement it. A water budget is in the initial drafting stages of input by the Water Resources Advisory Committee (WRAC) that may present substantive differences with the plan's recommendations and proposals despite its effort to use the language of the plan. But, because of the Water Assembly's leading role in the planning process and its representation on the WRAC, this will not go through without considerable review and new input. Much of the opposition to the plan's incorporation into the water budget comes from staff of the City of Albuquerque, the Middle Region Council of Governments and the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.

Green efforts need to be prioritized to gain the most in the shortest amount of time. We need to work in processes that will provide regional engagement on green issues. Greens could have worked for years to elect the entire state legislature and we would not have produced a more effective array of policy proposals that are integrated with local and state governments. What remains to be addressed is the existing over-appropriation of 70,000-110,000 acre feet/year of the water resource and the continued effort by public officials to disregard this deficit.

A citizen "Livabilty" coalition has been formed of individuals and groups supporting the implementation of the regional water plan, the Planned Growth Strategy (a holistic urban smart growth plan for Albuquerque) and the Metropolitan Transportation Plan. It came together as an expression of the frustration of many advocates in the failure to have the plans implemented after they were designed through a public process. It is possible that this coalition may develop a political strategy for addressing the implementation of these plans that have already been approved by the local governmental entities. This demonstrated frustration raises the political issue and brings it to the fore with a different sense of urgency. It also subtly establishes the priority of a promoting a Green political agenda over voting for a "winnable" duopolist candidate, who will not seek to implement the plans.

This is not a panacea. It is not intended to represent some grand strategy that Greens should implement in place of electoral work. It is simply a process that has produced results that are consistent with green values. A process and product that can readily be supported by progressives and even Republican farmers. Our ability to work with a variety of stakeholders is dependent on listening to them and defining our own priorities within the process. We were all able to stand firm against efforts by the Regional Council of Governments to delete Goal K of the Water Assembly: "Balance growth with renewable supply". We were able to maintain the goals described above regarding Growth Management in spite of the Water Resources Board of MRCOG opposing those listed after the first bullet. The Draft Water Conservation Plan of the Bernalillo County Commission specifically lists this goal and the growth management recommendations in its text. This is a major victory in itself.

It is necessarily a long process that not everyone will be able to sustain, but there are payoffs at the end. The length of the process may improve the local party's orientation in regards to the technical, as well as the political aspects of water planning. The planning process will not automatically provide solutions to political issues. Candidates, such as the Greens, should reach out in such work and begin to develop a working coalition with voter blocs that have common interests and agendas. They should work with the variety of activists to develop strategies for implementation of recommendations in the face of opposition by public officials and administrators. We need to discuss the planning process with their supporters and get input.

It is important that such bioregional water planning be authorized by the state legislature to empower and fund it upon completion. It is worthwhile to begin assimilating the open and inclusive nature of such a planning process into policy proposals for structural reform of governmental entities as proposed in works on Adaptive Governance. Organizers can initiate and support proposals for structural reform in local governance and planning that begin to incorporate the role of stakeholders in the decision-making processes. This can take place in charter changes and at the state level in getting such statutes sponsored that would move in that direction.

Bioregional planning is a learning experience that helps people identify actively engaged people of the region, as well as learning local movers and shakers that often work behind the scenes for the developers, home construction and related interests. It helps provide a self-education in hydrology and forces people to become more informed on the resource. It is also democracy at work at the most fundamental level and in the most fundamental area of policy determination impacting on water management. The incorporation of Town Hall meetings, Community Conversations, and open and inclusive input in such processes go beyond that currently modeled in municipal and other local governmental entities. The process can be effectively developed not only for water resource planning but for other areas of policy making, such as urban growth, fish and wildlife management, and forest and range land restoration.

The challenge ahead in implementation of the regional water plan for the Middle Rio Grande once again demonstrates the urgency of an ecologically based agenda. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are prepared to defy the interests of the high-tech industries, defense labs and the developers and home construction industry. There are no perfect models of resource planning that will address the myriad of factors undermining the establishment of sustainable planning systems. But, we can begin to comprehend the various defined local interests, actors and entities and their role in the growth-driven models of the present and can begin to construct new models for the future. We can begin to learn from this process and we can begin to define a new agenda while the window of opportunity is open. It's like floating downstream in a mountain stream.

Mato Ska, Aka Martin Zehr,

(Brown, John R. "Whiskey's fer Drinkin'; Water's fer Fightin'! Is It? Resolving a Collective Action Dilemma in New Mexico". NATURAL RESOURCES JOURNAL,; Winter 2003,Vol 43, No. 1. p.221. UNM SCHOOL OF LAW, Albuquerque, NM.)
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Martin Zehr Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Martin Zehr is an American political writer in the San Francisco area. He spent 8 years working as a volunteer water planner for the Middle Rio Grande region. His article on the Kirkuk Referendum has been printed by the Kurdish Regional Government, Another article was reprinted in its entirety by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) He is a Contributing Writer to Kurdish Aspect more...)

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