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New Mexico Water Leaders workshop aims to educate decision-makers, build connections

Jason Casuga, Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District chief engineer/CEO, speaks to workshop attendees at Elephant Butte.
(click for a larger version)
Photo by Emily Geery

By Christi Bode

Elephant Butte, NM
January 23, 2024

Overlooking a mostly-depleted reservoir on a calm December day, state legislators, water experts and agency leadership exchanged thoughtful dialogue about Elephant Butte’s role in the Lower Rio Grande.

The bottom line: climate change is impacting New Mexico’s water supplies and the ability to comply with water compacts, speakers shared with the audience. Large graphs displayed supporting data against the backdrop of “Elephant Butte’s wrinkles,” as Gary Esslinger, Treasurer/Manager of Elephant Butte Irrigation District called them, a geological feature commonly known as ‘bathtub rings.’

Nearly 100 decision-makers and other state water leaders attended the 2023 New Mexico Water Leaders workshop in early December, an annual event designed to create awareness around water issues impacting the state. The structured format of these workshops build upon information presented over the course of 3 days through a combination of presentations and panels led by subject matter experts. Morning sessions provide classroom material in a relaxed, indoor environment, setting the stage for what attendees will be seeing in the field that afternoon. Each field visit dives deeper into issues relevant to that specific location.

This workshop, formerly known as the ‘Decision Makers Conference,’ was started in the early 2000s by the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources. It originally highlighted a spectrum of natural resource topics beyond water. Intermittent state funding limited the frequency of workshops and presented capacity challenges for the agency.

“Getting people in the field and away from the committee hearing rooms to see water challenges first-hand is key to evidence-based decision making. This allows workshop participants to have discussions and hear directly from communities, agencies and water experts. They can take in different perspectives. This can have a real impact on how we value our water in New Mexico and create sound policy moving forward.” explained Stacy Timmons, Associate Director of Hydrogeology Programs at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology.

To ensure the mission of water education would continue, Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart appropriated $325,000 to New Mexico Tech during the 2023 legislative session to revive the program after a 13 year hiatus. This resulted in the formation of New Mexico’s Water Education Program, which is intended to evolve and grow through the support of long-term, permanent funding.

The New Mexico Bureau of Geology selected the Lower Rio Grande region for the 2023 workshop theme. Water management in this region is at a critical juncture, as state governments wish to adopt a compromise, ending the decade-long lawsuit over the Rio Grande’s water between New Mexico and Texas. The federal government officially laid out its objections to the settlement in Fall 2023 and the case awaits a hearing with the Supreme Court.

“In New Mexico, the Rio Grande is a key waterway. It’s really important for people to understand the issues in every region…legislators are writing or supporting bills that affect constituents throughout the state,” stated Kate Leary, Program Manager of New Mexico’s Water Education Program.

A wide range of presentations about the Lower Rio Grande included science, water management, water policy, agriculture and infrastructure topics, along with time for discussion. Afternoon field sessions offered a comprehensive look at the system, beginning with Elephant Butte Reservoir, followed by downstream visits at Caballo, Leesburg and Mesilla Dams, ending with stops at local farms outside of Las Cruces, NM. This workshop allowed participants a chance to visit sites of current legislative concern and connect with state agencies one-on-one.

“There’s such a multitude of different things that we discuss here that will come up later in the legislature or later in discussions. That is so helpful to hear two sides to many stories. And that’s one of the main things that I see when I come to these - is gaining knowledge of the issues, but also networking with people,” explained attendee Sen. Pat Woods.

Legislators in New Mexico are unpaid volunteers, each with their own areas of expertise. Creating effective water policy is dependent on decision makers having a basic grasp of today’s water issues. As demonstrated in post-conference surveys from attendees, these well-organized field workshops leave a positive impression and lead to making better decisions in their work.

Long-time workshop attendee Sen. Mimi Stewart has successfully enacted key water laws during her tenure, including a statewide water conservation plan and gray-water system regulations.

“The value of these workshops is just paramount in my decisions and the work I’ve done,” stated Sen. Stewart. “My knowledge and my involvement stems from these workshops. Every time I come to this I learn something new.”

For more information about New Mexico’s Water Education Program, visit

Also, more information on this particular event is found here.