New Mexico’s state engineer told a legislative committee Tuesday that drought conditions across the state are diminishing thanks to a wet winter and robust spring run-off.
But the downside in a high-water year like this one, he said, is increased risk that one or more of the state’s roughly 300 dams could overflow or burst, causing flooding that could have life-threatening consequences.
John D’Antonio told the Water and Natural Resources Committee that 30 percent of 170 dams that are considered “high hazard” — meaning at least one person is likely to die if a dam fails — are in poor or unsatisfactory condition. Just 33 percent are in satisfactory shape, he said.
Worse yet, he said, the state does not have a fund set aside to address the problem, so the State Engineer’s Office tackles problematic dams on a case-by-case basis after requesting and receiving funds.
“That does worry me,” said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque. “This may be the year that we have to create a fund for dam safety.”
D’Antonio told The New Mexican following his presentation that he is concerned about dam safety issues because the state usually isn’t forced to deal with the challenge until a dam fails.
More than half the state’s regulated dams were built before 1970. Many were created in connection with agricultural resources, such as fields for growing crops, and not designed to protect people.
Some dams were built upstream from where communities grew, D’Antonio said, “And if one fails, we can’t protect those residents.”
He said the state has not experienced a serious dam failure in years. Still, in 2013, heavy rains caused a breach in a small earthen dam upstream from La Union in Doña Ana County. Streets were wiped out, homes flooded and residents went without gas, power and drinking water for several days. A sinkhole swallowed one resident’s vehicle, but no one died in the flooding.
One difficulty in keeping track of the situation is that a number of entities, ranging from the state to cities to municipalities and watershed organizations, oversee these facilities, Rep. Jack Chatfield, R-Logan, said during Tuesday’s meeting at the Capitol.
The Association of State Dam Safety Officials says there are more than 90,000 dams in the United States with an average age of more than 55 years.
“As our population grows and development continues, the overall number of high-hazard potential dams (those whose failure could cause loss of life) increases as well, with the number climbing to more than 15,000 high-hazard potential dams in 2018,” the association reports on its website.
D’Antonio said the state is working on rehabilitating a handful of its most at-risk dams.
Also at Tuesday’s hearing, state climatologist Dave DuBois provided an update on New Mexico’s drought status. Because of the strong winter and spring precipitation hitting the state, no part of New Mexico remains under exceptional drought conditions, he said.
Based on a study of weather conditions, DuBois said, there is more than a 50 percent chance that El Niño — a weather pattern which occurs when warmer-than-usual sea temperatures and lower air pressure in the eastern tropical Pacific push moisture toward the Southwest — will continue through the end of the year.
“That’s a really good sign for us,” he said.
Some lawmakers said that while this is good news in the short-run, long-term drought conditions are expected to continue in the region. D’Antonio agreed, saying that’s one reason the state should continue to develop water conservation and management programs.
“We have to prepare for drought being more of the norm,” he said.