ISSUE 12-18-21 MRGCD EXEC DIRECTOR MIKE HAMMAN PREPARES TO STEP DOWN

As Corrales’ Mike Hamman prepares to step down as executive director of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District next month, he gave a wide-ranging interview to Corrales Comment  about the future of farming here, cannabis cultivation, climate change, prospects for a municipal water system and a N.M. water plan. More than a year ago, the Conservancy District’s chief engineer had planned to retire in 2022 and concentrate on his two-acre family farm here. But that changed when Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham asked him to serve as her senior water adviser.

In that capacity, he will direct a 50-year water plan for New Mexico.

“The governor has asked me to develop a whole-of-government approach that will include State departments, the  legislature, stakeholder interests and water resource professionals from around the state,” Hamman explained.

The goal is “to develop projects and policies that will advance water resiliency strategies in every region in the face of shortages resulting from persistent drought and rising temperatures.

“This effort will  help to prioritize infrastructure needs and make policy and funding recommendations to the governor and legislature for the 2023 60-day session.”

In his long career managing water with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the City of Santa Fe and Native American agencies before joining the Conservancy District January 20, 2015, Hamman focused on collaborations; he expects that to be crucial in his new role starting next month.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address New Mexico’s growing water resource challenges.”

The Conservancy District’s chief executive feels strongly that Village government should not try to ban marijuana cultivation here.

He said a flyer distributed by opponents of legal production of cannabis in Corrales “shamefully uses fear mongering to try and sway Corraleños into denying our small farmers the right to participate in a legal activity that may keep them in business.”

Hamman pointed to research by a  non-profit organization that debunks cannabis opponents’ claim that marijuana uses an extraordinary amount of water. “It further states that cannabis uses less water than tomatoes, corn and other crops in California.”

“People are pointing to the SWOP operation on the north end as to what may  happen in their backyards, but that is impossible with the proposed zoning regulations the Village is proposing.

“It makes sense to zone out large commercial greenhouses, as no one wants them next door, but the micro-producer regulations will fit within the community as with all other agricultural activities that the Village is committed to support in other ordinances.

“It would be a shame if these fear tactics convince the Village Council to further limit opportunities to make a decent living as a small farmer that may have no choice but to sell out to development. Is that what we want in Corrales?”

He said he is neither pro- nor anti- cannabis. “I don’t have a dog in this fight,” he said. “I’m just pro-farmer.”

When Hamman took over as director of MRGCD,  the district supplied water to approximately 10,000 separate irrigators, and since then, between 200 and 300 acres are no longer cultivated, he reported. A bigger change has been restoration of the district’s financial reserves to carry out necessary, but long neglected, infrastructure upgrades, repairs and maintenance.

He was asked what has been the biggest difference, operationally, in how MRGCD functioned when he took over compared to today.

Hamman said the board of directors as far back as 2008 cut its  rates that farmers had to pay to irrigate, which over time, depleted the district’s reserves to pay for needed repairs and maintenance. He said the previous executive director, Subhas Shah, “was quite proud of the surplus, but we had what I consider to be a highly under-served system. It had a lot of deferred maintenance, a lot of outdated equipment.  Why they were  holding on to that big reserve fund, I don’t know. It was just  the nature of the management at that time. But I came in at a time when the district had a lot of good, experienced board members who led the charge to cut the bleeding.

“We were bleeding three or four million dollars a year just in the operating budget out of that surplus, so we were in the red, and depleting the surplus that was supposed to be for infrastructure. The new thinking came in just before I was hired.

“The new board told me to operate the office professionally, get our staff operating in the black and let’s take a look at our long-term capital needs.

“Those were the parameters that I was supposed to take on, in addition to improving relations with the six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos and all our local governments… because quite frankly, those relationships were pretty bad. I mean, people dealt with the district because they had to, but they sure didn’t like to.

“That was one of the things that I worked really hard on. I brought my political capital with the Pueblos with me, as well as with the federal and state agencies. Those were things I had worked on for my entire career, and the board was buying that when they hired me.”

Between stints with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, he worked on water issues for the Jicarilla Apache government for more than eight years, and later a salmon habitat recovery program for tribes in the Pacific Northwest’s Klamath Basin.

He was the City of Santa Fe’s first director of water operations at a time when the City acquired the utility from Public Service Company of New Mexico. After five years there, he was recruited by the Jicarilla Apache to serve as its first water administrator.

“Then in 2008, the area manager position came open with the Bureau of Reclamation in Albuquerque. My wife and I looked at that and decided it was a good time to come back home.”

He took early retirement from that position to take the MRGCD job. “I told the board when I came on that I would give them four-plus years, and that I had retirement plans of my own after working in public service for 40-plus years.”

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Those plans included farming here in Corrales as well as developing some property he owns in Alaska. “Great plans, but those will be put on hold for a little while longer. Our illustrious governor is a very persuasive lady.  She told me we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform New Mexico’s water situation, from both an infrastructure and a policy perspective.”

He said the governor had high expectations that the  State’s 50-Year Water Plan would be completed by now, but that has nor been the case, partially due to the pandemic and inadequate funding. “I think the plan is coming along pretty well, but we’re going to need more time to do it right.”

A crucial factor in moving ahead with a water plan and its implementation is that adequate funding may finally be available, “such as the federal infrastructure funding that is coming into the State, and there’s still quite a bit of under-utilized capital appropriation from the legislature for water projects that is not yet put to beneficial use.”

Hamman said he has been told that $600 million in previous state appropriations for water projects remains unspent. “There are a lot of reasons why that’s the case, and that’s why we need a really good analysis for how we can capitalize on that.”

Already widely recognized are the “serious shortcomings for rural water systems and regional water insecurity problems that are going to take the best minds and commitment to action to get this jump-started in the right direction,”  Hamman explained, “rather than continue to chase our tails about things like, ‘well, who’s going to be the State Engineer?’ and ‘what are the qualifications going to be for that position?’ Instead, we have an opportunity to re-evaluate the whole system.”

He hopes to formulate a vision for  New Mexico’s water future with the help of  experts and groups around the state coupled with a time line “so that when August-September rolls around, we’re in a position to advise the legislature, the governor’s office and all the regions of the state that ‘we’ve heard you; we know what needs to be done, and here’s the plan. So now it’s up to you guys to do what you need to do for appropriations and other legislation.’”

Hamman conceded planning and good intentions have produced initiatives in the past, yet not much happens. “Let’s look at it this way. Many people in many of the basins around the state have tried so many times in the  past to make progress on these things, but we’ve never had the stars to align the way things seem to be working now.”

He said he has been hearing from citizens, civic groups and specialists who want to help get this done. “I’ve been getting  lots of offers of help. Everybody wants things to change. I don’t think I’ve experienced that before, where people and non-governmental organizations are saying ‘just let us know what you want us to do.’ I’m hearing that from just about every sector.”

Hamman said he thinks that is because people are so frustrated with inaction over decades,”and because the federal government is lined up to help us as they never have before, and we have all the oil and gas revenues coming in that are way above what we had expected. If we can’t make hay now, shame on us, right?”

Given those expected revenues, Hamman was asked whether that might brighten prospects that Corrales could finally get a municipal water system. Three decades ago, Village officials explored what it would cost to implement a water system, and the stunning answer was upward of $60 million, before inflation.

“Like all things, there has got to be the political will for it, and now people don’t feel there is a need for it,” Hamman replied. “The fact that we could connect to a regional utility is a possibility. Maybe Rio Rancho on the north end and Albuquerque on the south end. And the City of Albuquerque is already handling some of Corrales’ wastewater, so maybe some pieces of that are starting to fill in.”

He said existing federal-state funding could probably pay for wastewater projects here. “I know there are a lot of shallow wells that people are still counting on for household drinking water. I think  at a minimum they should look at putting their wells down into a deeper aquifer, maybe 200-300 feet.”

Hamman doesn’t think it is impossible that Corrales might be able to start a municipal water system. “No, it isn’t out of our reach. For the same reason that  you could probably afford a sewer system, you could afford a water system, but that depends on the political will and ability to raise taxes.

“Once you have a utility up and running, then people pay for the operation and maintenance, but it would take some combination of grants and loans that are available to Corrales.

“If the Village Council was serious about it, the first thing they would do is hire a competent firm to analyze the costs and rate structure. The N.M. Environment Department would require that in a preliminary engineering report, and I bet, even right now,  Corrales could get a grant to do that preliminary work.”

He agreed that Corraleños may not be ready to give up their own private wells just yet. “But if they’re starting to have contamination problems, they will be.”

Water availability could be an equally important motive for starting a municipal water system. As climate change reduces snow pack melt in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, the aquifers under Corrales will drop over time, leading to the expense of drilling  deeper wells. “It is true that the decrease in precipitation and the decline in irrigation agriculture in Corrales is ultimately going to lead to declining water tables… there’s just no doubt about that.”

Another impact from the ongoing drought is decreased water in the Riverside Drain, also known as the Clear Ditch. “I was recently contacted about the drying of the “Clear Ditch,’ which is happening for a number of reasons, drought being one of them.”

A major contributing factor is ever more domestic wells drawing down the water table. “Every individual well pumping is creating its own cone of depression, and that keeps the return flows that used to go to that drain, and then, there’s less and less irrigation going on.”

On top of those factors, the riverbed  is degrading as the Rio Grande flows past Corrales so that it is now lower than the Riverside Drain, he explained. On the bright side, he said release of water from upstream dams in the weeks ahead will raise water levels which may well raise it in the drain as well. “We’ve had this release from El Vado Dam to Elephant Butte so that the water in the river did up come up a couple of feet” which could mean a little more water in the Riverside Drain.

The soon-to-be senior water advisor for the governor  offered a general outline for the kinds of questions to be addressed in the 50-Year Water Plan. “Obviously the big ones are the infrastructure needs related to water and resiliency from the water supply perspective; that’s really the cornerstone of a good water plan.

“You’re recognizing the differentials between supply and demand, and what components of that supply are vulnerable and need to be shored  up. Or do we need to completely prepare to provide soft landings for certain segments of our water user community so that it’s not a complete loss of income or complete inability to do agricultural production that we’ve become accustomed to. We’ve had a fairly resilient system up until the last decade or so when we’ve started to see the serious signs of climate change impacts.

“Rising temperatures create the need for more water to grow the same amount of the same crop.

“When temperatures go up, aridity goes up. There’s more evapotranspiration to grow that same crop. That’s happening with the bosque and with every bit of vegetation that relies on water to survive. And bare ground also will evaporate more moisture. So not as much snowpack will accrue and it will run off quicker.

“Our infrastructure is designed for a specific type of run-off pattern, and now we may have to re-visit that, because run-off patterns are changing. And we have a different moisture pattern in which we may see more intense monsoonal events which will be damaging to that infrastructure. But that could be a source of water that can be captured and used in some form or fashion.

“Those are the sorts of things that you identify in a really solid water plan.”

An earlier water plan produced in 2018 identified about a quarter of a billion dollars in unmet infrastructure needs, Hamman recalled, and some of those needs are currently being addressed.

“What we need is a really comprehensive program for regional and rural drinking water systems. If there isn’t capacity from a rate base because of lack of population, or just lack of capacity within the organization that would take responsibility, then the systems have to be supported.

“So that is the matrix of the sort of things that we need to put into the total picture of what needs to be done,” he summed up. “And Corrales could fit right into that. You could do it in segments; you could make agreements with Rio Rancho to bring their water in, even though people here will complain about it because their water doesn’t taste as good as our own well water.

“But it’s very doable, and these regional systems are the best way to go since it has a better rate base and everybody can ride on everybody else’s shoulders.”

Like the MRGCD director before him, Hamman is open to the idea that the Corrales Interior Drain, a ditch east of Corrales Road that runs from the east end of Valverde Road to south of East Meadowlark Lane, could become municipal property owned by the Village of Corrales. The ditch has largely ceased to deliver return flows from agricultural fields to the Rio Grande; in fact much of it is dry all year.

A committee appointed by Mayor Jo Anne Roake is developing a proposal to transform the ditch and adjacent ditch roadways into public open space. But that will happen only if and when the Village takes full ownership of the property, thus relieving the Conservancy District of liability.

“We’re always hearing about traffic problems on the ditch banks. But that is more of a Village problem, not a Conservancy District  problem.

“We’re not in the park business and not in the road business, and we don’t want to be.”

If the Village sees the drain as a desirable asset, it should come to an agreement with the district to transfer ownership, Hamman suggested. He noted that the primary framework for Corrales recreational trails has long been MRGCD property. “But are we as a community going to allow the MRGCD to provide all of its open space into the future?”

He ended the interview by assuring villagers that he will continue to be a Corraleño for many years to come. “I’ll be leaving the district in really good hands. We have an excellent staff and a public service ethic that didn’t necessarily exist in the past.

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