ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service's effort to establish a consistent policy for considering underground water resources when making decisions that affect national forest lands is confusing and misleading, the head of the agency acknowledged Wednesday.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell made the comments after testifying before a U.S. House subcommittee. Despite repeated references in the proposed directive to the management of groundwater, he said the agency has no intention of trampling on the authority of states to allocate water rights or manage water resources.
"Definitely, we need to make some changes to the proposed directive to really clarify what the intent is and what it is not. There are a lot of questions and concerns when it comes to water rights," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
First introduced in May, the proposed groundwater directive has drawn sharp criticism from Western governors, dozens of congressmen, state lawmakers and water managers who say it's the federal government's latest attempt to overstep its authority and grab control of water resources.
Scott Verhines, New Mexico's top water official, was among those who testified Wednesday. By including words such as "management" in the directive, he said "it raises really big red flags to all of the rest of us."
Tidwell denied the proposal is a federal water grab. He said it will take time to satisfy the concerns because "it's water. And when it comes to water, people are quick to be concerned. I understand the concern, especially in states where water is scarce."
Dry conditions have been a persistent pain across the West. The drought reached unprecedented levels in New Mexico in 2013, and California has followed with its third year of historic drought. Reservoirs have reached record lows, river flows are down and the frustrations of farmers, ranchers and water managers are high.
Given the importance of groundwater, Tidwell said it makes sense that the agency take inventory and evaluate whether any proposed projects or activities on forest land will have a negative effect on water quality. Under the proposal, the agency sees groundwater and surface water sources as being connected.
The problem is legal issues divide how states treat surface and groundwater, and laws can differ from state to state. Critics also say the directive as drafted implies that the Forest Service has co-equal jurisdiction with the states when it comes to the management of groundwater.
"The Supreme Court has been really clear that it is up to the states to manage their groundwater," Verhines said. "That's part of our job, the state engineer's job. That's what we do all day, every day."
Verhines said he and other water managers were disappointed the Forest Service did not consult them before drafting the directive.
Instead of a blanket directive for forests across the country, the Western States Water Council and others have suggested that states sign a memorandum of understanding or some other type of agreement with regional forests to address groundwater concerns on a more local level.
The Forest Service has twice extended the comment period on the proposal, and Tidwell said it could be early next year before a final draft is released.