S. 1936

Statement of
Michael L. Connor, Deputy Secretary
U.S. Department of the Interior
Before the
Energy and Natural Resources Committee
United States Senate
S. 1936
New Mexico Drought Preparedness Act of 2015

October 8, 2015


Chairman Murkowski, Ranking Member Cantwell and Members of the Committee, I am Mike Connor, Deputy Secretary at the Department of the Interior (Department).  Thank you for the opportunity to provide the views of the Department on S. 1936.  This bill aims to enhance coordination for water acquisitions, authorize appropriations for projects to assist with water conservation, authorize appropriations for the study of the lower reaches of the Middle Rio Grande, support efforts to provide an annual spring peak flow for the Middle Rio Grande, and provide for a study of Rio Grande reservoirs.  The Department supports many elements of the New Mexico Drought Preparedness Act of 2015, but has concerns with some of the new authorizations and with the introduced language of Section 6 of the bill as detailed in my statement.

Although this bill mentions the Upper, Middle, and Lower Rio Grande basins, as well as the Lower Pecos, Gila, Canadian, San Francisco and San Juan River basins, the primary focus is on work in the Middle Rio Grande in New Mexico.  The 2003 biological opinion for water operations and river management in the Middle Rio Grande defines the Middle Rio Grande as the area of the Rio Chama watershed and the Rio Grande, including all tributaries, from the Colorado/New Mexico state line downstream to the headwaters of Elephant Butte Reservoir.  The Bureau of Reclamation’s (Reclamation) Middle Rio Grande Project (Project) extends from the Velarde area of northern New Mexico south to the backwaters of Elephant Butte Reservoir. The irrigation features of the Project divert water from the river to irrigate between 50,000 and 70,000 acres of irrigable land, including an approximate 20,000 acres of Pueblo Indian land.

Reclamation has been leasing water on the Pecos River and from San Juan-Chama Project contractors for over a decade to supplement river flows for endangered species, consistent with the language of Section 3 of S. 1936.  We have spent tens of millions of dollars acquiring San Juan-Chama Project water and relinquished Rio Grande Compact credit water in recent years to augment flows in the Middle Rio Grande.  However, other than the relinquished Rio Grande Compact credit water, Reclamation has not been able to lease and make use of the water that is native to the Rio Grande in New Mexico due to the administrative, legal, and institutional complexities involved.  In the explanatory statement printed December 11, 2014, for the Congressional Record, in reference to P.L. 113-235, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, Congress encouraged Reclamation to pursue efforts to facilitate agricultural water leasing along the Middle Rio Grande and San Juan Chama Projects.  In response, Reclamation has started a pilot leasing program of pre-1907 water rights and is planning a grant opportunity to solicit the services of outside experts to evaluate a leasing program led by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (District).  This bill would provide Reclamation and the District with increased flexibility to implement and effectively manage such a program.

For years, Reclamation has provided funding and technical assistance for irrigation districts and water utilities in New Mexico and west Texas to develop sustainable water supplies under various water conservation programs.  Examples of such assistance include improving efficiency and conservation under the WaterSMART Program through Water and Energy Efficiency Grants to entities such as the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and funding for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s water recycling and reuse (Title XVI) project, and through the Native American Affairs Program.  Reclamation is also working with partners to carry out various basin studies and other related efforts through Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, the Cooperative Watershed Management Program, and the Water Conservation Field Services Program.  This year, Reclamation and the District are beginning work on a plan of study for a Middle Rio Grande Basin Study, and the six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos participate in the Rio Grande Pueblos Irrigation Infrastructure Improvement Project.  Any water conservation actions by the District and Pueblos that would result in more efficient use of the available water supply is welcome by Reclamation.  However, as indicated previously, existing programs are available to provide the opportunity to cost-share conservation actions that will benefit the Rio Grande system.  Two such programs, WaterSMART and the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief program, are proposed for additional appropriations ceiling in S. 1936 and therefore, new authority such as provided in Section 4(a) is not necessary. 

Section 5(a) of S. 1936 contains provisions granting five more years of the temporary deviation in the operation of Cochiti Reservoir by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Such deviations allow for creation of a spike flow in the Middle Rio Grande through the impoundment and regulation of spring flows.  The Department supports a feasibility study in partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers and Cochiti Pueblo to assess maximized operational flexibilities if the concerns of Cochiti Pueblo are addressed. The ability to stage water in the spring to augment the native flows in the Middle Rio Grande is an important cue to the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow to reproduce. 

Section 5(b) of S. 1936 authorizes a comprehensive study and a series of projects in the Isleta and San Acacia reaches of the Middle Rio Grande aimed at giving Reclamation and other partnering agencies a better understanding of this area, which is designated as critical habitat for the Rio Grande silvery minnow.  The Middle Rio Grande below Cochiti Dam is divided into four reaches defined by locations of mainstem irrigation diversion dams.  The Cochiti Reach extends from Cochiti Dam to Angostura Diversion Dam.  The reach from Angostura Diversion Dam to Isleta Diversion Dam is called the Albuquerque Reach.  The Isleta Reach is bound upstream by Isleta Diversion Dam and downstream by San Acacia Diversion Dam.  Finally, the reach below San Acacia Diversion Dam to the headwaters of Elephant Butte Reservoir is the San Acacia Reach.  The study would also assist with development of a plan for moving forward with coordinated water conservation measures.

Reclamation and Department policy require scientific and scholarly information considered in our decision making to be robust, of the highest quality, and the result of best possible scientific and scholarly processes.  Most importantly, users must be able to trust the information. Section 6 of S. 1936 authorizes a National Academy of Sciences Study of the water and reservoir management and operation from Heron and El Vado down to Abiquiu, Cochiti, Jemez Canyon, Elephant Butte, and Caballo reservoirs.  A full evaluation of the legal authorities of each of these reservoirs weighed against the hydrologic reality and potential impacts of climate change would likely provide water managers all along the Rio Grande in New Mexico with useful information that could prove important as we struggle to meet growing needs with a decreasing water supply. However, there is a budget concern associated with such a study.  A study of this magnitude is not anticipated in Reclamation’s budget and would have to compete for funding among numerous existing priorities.  Additionally, this study would likely duplicate other efforts, including the Upper Rio Grande Impact Assessment completed by Reclamation in 2013, or even the Lower Reach or Cochiti studies that would be authorized by S. 1936.  As an alternative to the study proposed under Section 6 of S. 1936, the Department recommends commissioning a National Academy of Sciences review of the findings of the Middle Rio Grande Basin Study that Reclamation anticipates the District will pursue.  The Department would seek to secure cost-share partners for the review, consistent with the requirements for Basin Studies.  This approach would achieve the study objectives outlined in S. 1936, allow for independent scientific and scholarly input, and limit duplication of efforts and resources.     

New Mexico has endured five years of consecutive drought.  Rain this spring and summer has provided some temporary relief.  Emergency funding for infrastructure improvements, crop losses, and settlement of water rights claims would be positive.  Although Reclamation utilizes drought funding for water leasing, it should be noted that Reclamation is currently in the process of leasing all of the water that is available at a reasonable price (i.e. excluding what would be covered under the pilot leasing program described above).

The Department supports language in Sections 8 and 9 of S. 1936 relating to the authorizations for the WaterSMART Program and under the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief Act.   There are some technical changes warranted to bring those Sections into conformance with recently-passed language provided in appropriations bills (e.g. Section 8(2) should be $400 million, not $300 million), and to ensure that the language can be carried out through Reclamation’s existing programs.  We would be glad to work with the sponsors’ offices and the Committee to refine those sections, and to ensure that the additional financial assistance authorities included in Section 7 do not duplicate other existing authorities.  In addition, the legislation should ensure that any drought relief wells funded should be in response to a critical need and prioritization process, and do not add to existing problems associated with groundwater depletion.

Section 10 of S. 1936 provides additional time for completion of the study originally authorized under Section 9106 of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-11).  The purpose of the study is to assess the feasibility of projects to repair, rehabilitate, reconstruct, or replace Pueblo irrigation facilities recommended to be implemented from fiscal years 2010 through 2019.  The study was to be submitted to Congress in March 2011; however, due to a lack of funding, Reclamation was delayed in starting the study.  Now that sufficient funds have been appropriated and transferred, Reclamation is scheduled to complete the study in 2016.

All 18 New Mexico Rio Grande Pueblos have agreed to participate in the project.  Reclamation supports the language in S. 1936 to extend the study period until December 31, 2016, and extend the ten-year construction period through 2024.  The Department acknowledges the potential need for the bill’s language increasing authorization for construction appropriations from $6 million to $12 million per year during this ten-year period, though we note that budget realities may not allow for the opportunity to request this level of funding, and these authorization would need to compete with other budget priorities.  Because not all projects can be built, Reclamation will prioritize the projects based on the cost-effectiveness of the proposed investments.

This concludes my statement.  I am pleased to answer questions at the appropriate time.


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