The 2020 Legislative Session ended on February 20th. Even years have short thirty-day sessions, and the legislature is primarily limited to budgetary concerns. Nevertheless, we worked on a number of bills and funding measures for state agencies, and many of these will impact New Mexico’s water. Here are some highlights.
Trust Fund Bill for Restoration
The Agriculture and Natural Resources Trust Fund Act was a bipartisan bill to use the interest on a portion of New Mexico’s reserve (savings) budget to secure federal matching funds for on-the-ground restoration projects around the state. We currently leave lots of federal money on the table by not investing the required non-federal matching dollars. Meanwhile, New Mexico suffers a huge backlog of critical restoration projects for watersheds, grasslands, and more. A similar program in Wyoming sees approximately a 6:1 return for every dollar invested by the state.
While the bill did not ultimately pass this session, it was supported by a broad coalition of conservation organizations, landowners and ranchers, tribes, and soil and water conservation districts. We will continue to work on this bill during the year in the hopes we can pass it in 2021 and get much-needed dollars on the landscape.
750K in Funding for the Strategic Water Reserve!
The Strategic Water Reserve is essentially a water bank, created by the NM State Legislature in 2005. It allows the State Engineer’s Office to purchase and lease water rights to fulfill its compact duties and leave water in the river specifically for threatened and endangered species. Since its creation it has had sporadic and varied appropriations of funds; several two-million dollar appropriations (some of which was repurposed by the legislature and taken out of the Reserve), and a small appropriation of about $250,000 in 2019. This inconsistent funding has severely limited what the State Engineer’s Office can do.
We worked with several partners during the session to convince legislators to contribute some of their capital outlay money to the Reserve. If there are available funds, legislators are given a certain amount of money from the budget to allocate to individual projects. Capital outlay must go to things like equipment, infrastructure, and purchases.
Once the Strategic Water Reserve was recognized as a legitimate capital outlay expense, we talked to legislators about what the fund can do, and why they should contribute to it. We only had one week to accomplish our goal of getting 500K to the Reserve, but when the capital outlay list came out, we learned that we had far exceeded our goal and the Reserve got 750K! This is a huge win for New Mexico’s rivers and wildlife.
Department of Game and Fish Funding Issues
New Mexico’s Department of Game and Fish manages wildlife in the state other than species listed on the federal endangered species act. Its charges include many species not designated as “game”, yet its funding is almost entirely tied to game species. The vast majority of its funding comes from hunting and fishing licenses and federal taxes levied on the sale of guns and bullets. This presents a problem for state game and fish agencies, as participation in hunting continues to decline among Americans, and departments feel forced to prioritize existing funding for species which are hunted and fished.
The conservation community has long recognized the need for the Game and Fish department to have alternative sources of funding which are wider in scope. This is an issue which will continue to come up in future legislative sessions.
Two small things happened during the 2020 legislative session which will help. There was a bill to give Game and Fish $200,000 to complete a study on possible alternative sources of revenue for the department. The bill didn’t pass, but Game and Fish has committed to doing the study anyway. The results will help all of us learn about possible ways to help the Department.
We were also successful in getting the Governor to include a request for a $500,000 appropriation to the Department for work on threatened and endangered species. While a small amount, it’s critical that the Administration is recognizing this issue and taking steps to find solutions.
Wildlife Trafficking Act Passes!
Finally, we are happy to announce the passage of the Wildlife Trafficking Act! While importation of endangered species from other countries was already illegal under federal and international law, this bill created a state crime, allows the state to use its law enforcement agencies to stop trade, and closed loopholes in state law relating to wildlife trafficking.