New Mexico State University's College of Agriculture and Home Economics is forming a university-wide Water Task Force that will supply objective, scientific data about water issues in New Mexico.

The task force will include about 75 NMSU specialists on water-related issues who will provide rapid responses to public requests for studies, white papers, expert testimony at public hearings and proposed solutions to water problems.

"Water is hands down the No. 1 issue in New Mexico, but some decisions are being made on emotion rather than science," Billy Dictson, associate dean of the college and director of the Cooperative Extension Service, said. "This is an effort to inject unbiased science directly into the debate. As the state's land-grant university, people look to NMSU for solutions, so we are going to unite our expertise and become more involved in one of the biggest issues facing New Mexico."

The federal agriculture bill signed Oct. 28 by President Bill Clinton provides one-time funding for NMSU to address irrigation efficiency programs, and some of those funds will be earmarked for task force initiatives, Dictson said. The college and NMSU's Water Resources Research Institute (WRRI) will request state funding when the legislature meets to help provide long-term financial stability for the initiative.

"We can begin working with soft money, such as the newly approved federal funds, but we will need state funding to give us the stability to consistently address water issues in the future," Dictson said.

The need for impartial scientific data has grown more urgent, because some fundamental policy decisions affecting water use are being made without sufficient research into the benefits, Dictson said. He cited the controversies surrounding the silvery minnow and blunt-nosed shiner as prime examples.

"Water is being diverted down river to address issues surrounding the minnow, and yet there is not conclusive scientific evidence to show that those policies are benefiting the silvery minnow," Dictson said. "Some biologists think it may even be contributing to their demise, because it interferes with the natural reproductive cycle."

Such issues have become critical because of drought in New Mexico. Extremely dry conditions afflict about 70% of the state.

"The timing is perfect for the formation of a Water Task Force," Dictson said. "A lot of people have been saying that water was going to get scarce someday, but someday is now. The state engineer has indicated that the water supply in New Mexico is rapidly becoming more critical."

Once the task force begins operating, it will form a variety of working groups to address specific water issues, said Craig Runyan, Extension water quality specialist who will coordinate the initial task force efforts. Subcommittees may address such issues as drought mitigation, in-stream flow requirements, interstate compacts, total daily maximum load orders, endangered species regulations, adjudication of water rights, groundwater allotment and special tribal claims to water.

The state's irrigation districts, several legislators and other water entities have endorsed NMSU's decision to establish the Task Force.

About 85 faculty and staff members from the college, the Water Resources Research Institute and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture attended a meeting to discuss the initiative, and Runyan said that about 70 NMSU experts have agreed to participate and other scientists are expected to join.

Despite its size, Runyan said the task force will be organized as an agile body that will rapidly respond to public requests for research and information.

"There will be a core working group that will act as a clearinghouse to quickly respond to public needs," Runyan said. "The core group will put together inter-disciplinary teams of experts to rapidly deal with water issues as they arise."

Runyan and other task force members are organizing a comprehensive, online directory of NMSU expertise on water issues, plus a listing of water-related studies available or underway.

"Once it is fully functioning, it will provide New Mexico with a broad body of experts who can collectively and consistently identify and address water issues on an academic and scientific basis," Runyan said. "We expect it will provide nonbiased, research-based information on water policies and procedures throughout the state."

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