A package of bills introduced by New Mexico’s Democrat congresspeople intended to improve water availability and monitoring amid a record-breaking wildfire season this year, was brought before the U.S. House of Representatives this week as part of a larger package intended to address wildfire and drought across the country.
U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-NM) introduced three water-related bills in May that would require increased water data collection, designate federal funds for water-related programs to Indigenous groups and appropriate federal funds to restore the Rio Grande, New Mexico’s largest river and body of water.
Those were included in the House’s six-bill Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act, introduced Wednesday by a group of representatives from western states and part of a larger piece of environmental legislation known as the Continental Divide Trail Completion Act.
During a Thursday press conference at the U.S. Capitol announcing the Act’s passage where she was joined by joined by U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, Stansbury said the legislation would help her arid state which struggles with intensifying drought conditions and address the impacts of climate change across the U.S.
Stansbury pointed to series of wildfires in New Mexico earlier this spring as demonstrating the need for action on climate change and aridification.
The Calf Canyon Hermits Peaks Fire became the largest fire in New Mexico’s history this year after it burned 341,753 acres since April and the Black Fire grew to the second largest in New Mexico’s history as it torched 325,136 acres since May.
The U.S. Drought Monitor showed 99 percent of New Mexico was facing drought conditions as of July 26, with 98 percent in at least moderate drought and 76 percent in severe drought.
About 32 percent of the state was in extreme drought, the Monitor showed, with 11 percent in the worst class exceptional drought, mostly on New Mexico’s eastern border known for heavy agriculture development.
“These are critical pieces of legislation to address our climate crisis,” Stansbury said of the bill package. “Our state has never experienced anything like this. Our communities are struggling. We know the West is facing an historic drought, a millennial drought. In my home district, the Rio Grande has gone dry for the first time in decades.
“This is the direct impact of climate change. In order to address these issues, we need big ideas.”
Leger Fernandez, whose legislation to provide federal relief dollars to those impacted by the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak Fire in her northern Third Congressional District was included in the package, said her constituents were devastated by the fires and worsening drought imperiled agriculture.
“For the past three months, my community have been hit by the biggest wildfire in New Mexico’s history. A historic drought has forced our ranchers on our beautiful but parched eastern plains to sell their cattle early,” she said.
“The bill is like a gentle monsoon rain falling on our parched landscape. It brings both hope and solutions.”
The House’s work to address drought came as the U.S. Senate passed a series of water bills, part of which included legislation led by New Mexico’s Democrat U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan.
His contributions to the bill were provisions that would increase funding for rural irrigation systems, expanding the availability to indigenous groups and providing federal funds for water projects throughout New Mexico.
“As the climate crisis continues to threaten New Mexico communities in the form of catastrophic wildfires, dangerous flooding, and prolonged drought— water is a vital resource in New Mexico,” Lujan said.
“Critically, this legislation also provides more opportunities for acequias to access cost-share relief and expands access for Tribal and Pueblo communities to receive federal investments to enhance their capacity to combat climate change and prolonged drought.”
The Senate announced a potential reconciliation deal that could see Democrats in that chamber unite on legislation to reduce carbon emissions while also addressing inflation.
The reconciliation process allows lawmakers to circumvent a Republican filibuster and move a bill on 50-50 vote with the Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tie breaker.
Republicans could still hold up the bill through a parliamentary objection as the reconciliation process requires everything in the legislation be related to the budget.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who previously signaled he would not vote for a previous package of environmental bills in the Build Back Better Act, a signature piece of legislation of President Joe Biden, said they reached a deal on conservation measures and introduced the Inflation Reduction Act.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) said the bill would also help incentivize the use of renewable energy and electric vehicles, while also support the electrification of American homes.
“We’ve secured a path forward to fight inflation, lower energy costs, invest in clean energy, and reduce carbon emissions,” Heinrich said. “There is certainly more to do and say, but I am proud to go home to New Mexico knowing we have fought successfully for the future our kids deserve.”
This bill would also include provisions to reduce carbon emissions but ran afoul of some environmentalists who argued it allowed for further use of fossil fuels and extraction on public lands.
Ben Shelton with Conservation Voters New Mexico said Congress must take stronger action to address climate change for the protection of states like New Mexico he said could see some of the worst impacts.
“Congress has struggled over the last decade to take climate action commensurate with the scale of the problem our communities are facing,” Shelton said. “The Inflation Reduction Act’s unprecedented investment on climate and environmental justice can play a key role in leveraging New Mexico’s own commitments to act on climate and help accelerate them.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.