Statement of Scott Cameron , Acting Assistant Secretary – Water and Science
U.S. Department of the Interior
Energy and Natural Resources Committee
Subcommittee on Water and Power
the New Mexico Drought Preparedness Act
June 14, 2017
Chairman Flake, Ranking Member King and members of the Subcommittee, I am Scott Cameron, Acting Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the Department of the Interior. I am pleased to provide the views of the Department of the Interior (Department) on S. 1012, the New Mexico Drought Preparedness Act. This bill aims to enhance coordination for water acquisitions, authorize projects to assist with water conservation, authorize 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 2017, but has concerns with some of the new authorizations and with the language of Section 6 of the bill as detailed later 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 2016 biological opinion for water operations, river infrastructure restoration, maintenance, and conservation activities in the Middle Rio Grande defines the Middle Rio Grande as the entire width of the 100-year floodplain of the Rio Grande basin and its tributaries from the Colorado/New Mexico state line to Elephant Butte Dam. 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. 1012. Taxpayers 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 yet to lease and make use of more-than-nominal volumes of native Rio Grande water 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 build and begin testing the framework for a leasing program in collaboration with 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 landscape-scale efforts through the Basin Study Program. Reclamation, the District, and fifteen other non-Federal partners, including Tribal partners, have been working on a plan of study for a Rio Grande – New Mexico Basin Study. In addition, the six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos participate in the Rio Grande Pueblos Irrigation Infrastructure Improvement Project. Reclamation also provided funding under the Cooperative Watershed Management Program to expand the Rio Chama Watershed Group in 2014 to include the lower Rio Chama Basin, and provided funding to the Upper Rio Grande Watershed District in 2016 to establish a watershed group to bring together ranchers, environmental interests, and land management agencies in the Espanola Basin. Reclamation has provided Drought Response Program funding in 2016 to the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District for both drought contingency planning and implementation of a drought resiliency project to install a pumping facility to increase the predictability of water supplies for District water users. 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.
Section 5(a) of S. 1012 contains provisions granting five years of a temporary deviation in the operation of Cochiti Reservoir by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Such deviations, if found to be hydrologically beneficial, allow for creation of a spike flow in the Middle Rio Grande through the impoundment and regulation of spring flows. However, in the past 67 years of record, conditions for deviation would only have occurred in five of those years. 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 and Santa Ana Pueblos 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. 1012 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 information considered in our decision making to be robust and of the best available quality. Stakeholders must be able to trust the information. Section 6 of S. 1012 authorizes a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Study of the water and reservoir management and operation from Heron and El Vado down to Abiquiu, Cochiti, and Jemez Canyon dams and reservoirs. A full evaluation of the legal authorities of each of these reservoirs weighed against the basin’s hydrology 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. A study of this magnitude, however, is not anticipated in Reclamation’s budget, and would have to compete for funding against numerous existing priorities. Therefore, while we see the NAS study as the most comprehensive review of Reclamation operations, we recommend evaluation of ways that this project can build on the work of other studies, such as the proposed Rio Grande- New Mexico Basin Study, if it is selected for funding, and the Rio Chama Pilot Study, which is a review of river and reservoir operations on the Rio Chama. 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. 1012, allow for independent scientific input, and limit duplication of efforts and resources.
New Mexico has endured almost a decade of drought. An above average snowpack this spring will allow Reclamation and its stakeholders to start rebuilding storage in nearly empty reservoirs. 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 generally supports language in Sections 8 and 9 of S. 1012 relating to the authorizations for the WaterSMART Program and under the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief Act. We note, however, that if the sponsor’s aims is to reauthorize the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief Act , Title I of that Act (Section 104(c)) should also be reauthorized to mirror Title III. There are some technical changes we would suggest to ensure that the language can be implemented through Reclamation’s existing programs (e.g., the Department supports retaining a required non-Federal cost share contribution which allows Reclamation to leverage Federal and non-Federal funding to construct projects with far more significant benefits than would otherwise be possible, in the WaterSMART Drought Response Program and other WaterSMART programs). We are willing to work with the sponsors 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. 1012 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, Reclamation was delayed in starting the study. Reclamation is currently scheduled to complete the study in 2017.
All 18 New Mexico Rio Grande Pueblos have agreed to participate in the project. Reclamation supports the language in S. 1012 to extend the study period until December 31, 2018, and extend the ten-year construction period through 2024. Funding for construction will be dependent on availability. 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.