BERNALILLO, N.M. (AP) — Making New Mexico’s dwindling water supplies more sustainable is the driving force behind a plan announced Thursday by Gov. Susana Martinez and other state officials.
The New Mexico River Stewards Initiative aims to protect the health of rivers and watersheds throughout the state through projects that would include lowering riverbanks, replanting native vegetation and revitalizing wetlands.
Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn has been working on establishing the program for years. He likens it to maintaining pipelines, wells, tanks and other infrastructure necessary for public drinking water systems.
“This,” he said, looking out at the Rio Grande, “is natural infrastructure that supports our communities and we’re trying to restore it.”
Extreme to exceptional conditions have placed New Mexico in the top spot nationally when it comes to drought. After three years with little snow and rain, the state’s reservoirs have been reduced to record low levels, stretches of the Rio Grande and Pecos River have been going dry regularly, farmers are being forced to rely on groundwater wells and ranchers have been selling off their herds.
In the cities, officials have imposed water restrictions and conservation has become the mantra.
Another problem, state officials said, is more than one-third of New Mexico’s surface waters do not meet water quality standards. For example, the stretch of the Rio Grande that flows through Albuquerque has elevated levels of E. coli bacteria.
Recent wildfires also have increased fears of mudslides and flash flooding this monsoon season. That can also compromise water quality.
“I think we turn the tap and we take it for granted,” Flynn said. “This is all part of this concept of really trying to think in terms of promoting the sustainability ethic.”
Under the program, the governor’s office will pursue $1.5 million in state capital outlay funds for river and watershed restoration projects. That money can then be leveraged to secure federal and local matching funds.