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FARMINGTON — Findings in a new study suggest that much work is needed to overcome water shortfalls already depleting the Colorado River Basin.

The three-year study, conducted by the Lower Colorado Region of the Bureau of Reclamation, took center stage Wednesday during a meeting of the state's Water and Natural Resources Committee and the Drought Subcommittee at San Juan College's Henderson Fine Arts Center.

John Longworth speaks during a New Mexico Water and Natural Resources Committee and the Drought Subcommittee meeting Wednesday at San Juan College s
John Longworth speaks during a New Mexico Water and Natural Resources Committee and the Drought Subcommittee meeting Wednesday at San Juan College s Henderson Fine Arts Center in Farmignton. (null)

Officials on break between legislative sessions convened a panel of members from the bureau, the Interstate Stream Commission, Rio Grande Restoration and participating entities.

The 1,500-page study, which was published in December 2012, documents volatility in water supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin. It's part of the bureau's Basin Study Program and a collaboration between the seven Colorado River Basin states, the Ten Tribes Partnership and conservation organizations.

"We're vulnerable if we do nothing and continue business as usual on this entire basin," said Carly Jerla, the bureau's study manager. "(The study) lays the technical foundation for conversations to occur. Vulnerabilities (with the river's supply and demand) are increasing over time."

New Mexico is now in its 12th year of drought. And the state's plight will require more than a quick fix, officials agree.

"In the early 2000s, we're starting to see a long-term imbalance starting to surface with use surpassing supply," Jerla said. "We've had plenty of occurrences on this river basin of use surpassing supply, but, due to the amount of reservoir storage that we have, we're able to store over four times what our annual average flow is on this basin. We've been able to get through those periods without having to reduce deliveries. So what the study is concerned with is what do these (trends) look like 50 years into the future."

Jerla emphasized while the study looks 50 years into the future, it doesn't take into account new ideas that could emerge.

The bureau solicited idea from the public over a three-month period. In that time, Jerla said the bureau collected 160 ideas to manage the water supply, including augmenting, importing and reusing water supplies, as well as desalination and conservation, she said.

"We have modify operations -- water banking, transfers and exchanges, redoing our reservoirs to meet other requirements -- and then governance and implementation -- strategies geared at how we might implement options," Jerla said. "Strategies like undoing the law of the river or changing the allocation structure on the Colorado River Basin also came up."

Steve Harris, executive director of Rio Grande Restoration, praised the study's innovation.

"The classic response (to a water shortage) is, 'We'll go find another source of supply,'" Harris said. "What's unique is that (the bureau) is looking at demand-reduction scenarios, and there's plenty of scenarios where they have been used successfully. That represents a sea change."

Harris echoed Jerla's emphasis on a multi-perspective approach to declining supply and increasing demand for the water.

"It's taking a regional, cooperative approach. All the states in the basin participated," Harris said. "The scope and the charge of the study for the first time puts environmental uses on equal footing with agriculture and domestic water supply."

But Victor Marshall, an attorney for the San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association, disagreed.

"The reality is grim, beyond anything you and your readers could imagine," Marshall said.

Marshall said more powerful and populated areas than San Juan County are winning the battle for water access.

"Farmington and Gallup are competing with Beverly Hills for water. I want people to understand the geography," he said. "The (bureau is) in the business of building dams, so they want projects to keep budgets flowing."

Still, Jerla emphasized the report was to help get the planning and strategy work started.

"There's no silver bullet," Jerla said. "It's only going to be a whole bunch of smaller projects that can chip away at this problem."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.