An Interview with Rep. Melanie Stansbury

In February, New Mexico Wild Executive Director Mark Allison sat down with Congresswoman Melanie Stansbury for a virtual interview to discuss her work in congress to protect New Mexico’s water and other natural resources. Below is a transcript of that conversation.

Mark Allison: Thank you Congresswoman for joining us this afternoon. I have just a few questions for you. First, you pulled off an amazing victory last June when you won the special election to fill the seat of Deb Haaland in new Mexico’s first congressional district. Deb Haaland of course, left to become President Biden’s secretary of interior. What was it like going from being in the state legislature to then almost immediately serving in Congress and joining your new mid-term?

Rep. Stansbury: First of all, it’s such a huge honor to be able to serve after Secretary Haaland. She left huge shoes to fill. And I think one of my biggest priorities from the get-go has been to try to honor the work that she did and carry on and provide continuity.

She was a huge advocate as our congresswoman on tribal issues, the missing and murdered Indigenous women and relative issue, and also a huge advocate on climate issues, which are also near and dear to me, and also an advocate on all sorts of community issues.

I think we have a lot in common, but just reflecting on the bigger moment, the importance of Secretary Haaland’s nomination to be our Interior secretary at this historical moment in our country’s history is just so emotional and important. And the work that she’s doing at the Department of Interior is so important.

I had previously actually worked in Washington D.C. on The Hill for a couple of years in the Senate Energy Committee.  I worked during the Obama administration in the White House Office of Management and Budget on science and conservation initiatives. And so I knew my way around Washington, but it’s very different to come back as a member of Congress and to have the sense of responsibility for your communities and for carrying the voices and stories and priorities of your communities into the halls of Congress every day.

For me, the transition has been about trying to understand what it is that our communities really want me to be fighting for and to make sure that we spend our time and our resources advancing the needs of our communities, whether that’s working on legislation that is important for climate change and the environment, or doing constituent work back here in our district that helps the people we serve.

So it’s been a fast and furious adventure joining Congress mid-session. I think some of the biggest challenges have been starting in the middle of a session and having to staff up an office I’m in the middle of a session rather than before the session begins.

But I’m proud to say that we’re fully staffed and 90% are New Mexicans. So we were able to hit the ground running and carry on some of Deb Haaland’s work as well, while also putting together our own portfolio. We spent a lot of the summer and the fall doing listening sessions across the district to really do deep listening in our communities and understand the priorities that people have, and how can we best serve those interests every day.

That’s what we’ve been doing along with trying to get our president’s agenda passed through Congress. We successfully passed the infrastructure bill and we’re still trying to pass the Build Back Better Act and those really important climate, conservation and social investments.

It’s truly been an honor to be able to serve so far.

Mark Allison: That’s great to hear. I did want to say you really have hit the ground running and note that you’ve already received some very positive attention for your expertise on climate change, energy transition, and water issues.

Your committee assignments certainly reflect that. We noted that you received the outstanding public official award from the U.S. Water Alliance. And you had a really flattering article in Politico recently, where it referred to you as a super freshman and somebody to watch on climate.

Can you tell our readers why you’re so passionate about these issues? These are big, seemingly intractable issues and you’ve immersed yourself in them. How did you become so passionate about them?

Rep. Stansbury: Well, as a native New Mexican, I’ve worked on water and natural resources issues my entire life.

From the time I was a small child, I’ve always been passionate about and interested in science and sustainability. Throughout my career, my work has been at the nexus between science, sustainability, and social justice. Tying that thread together and trying to understand how we live sustainably in this environment, in this beautiful mountain desert ecosystem, where our communities have lived for centuries and for millennia.

We are seeing a rapidly changing climate, and so many of our communities are struggling economically. So a central question that has motivated my entire life’s work since the time I was a little kid has been how do we conserve our water and natural resources. In fact, when I was in middle school, I won a state science fair award for my science fair project in the eighth grade. I was doing water quality testing on the Rio Grande. We lived in Corrales at the time and I actually got really interested in water quality. So I’ve been doing this literally my entire life and I am a proud “water nerd,” as I often say. Throughout my career, I’ve really tried to understand how is it that we can manage our resources more sustainably while protecting our traditional uses and ways of life while building more sustainable economic opportunities for our communities.

I started my career as a science educator. My undergraduate degree was in ecology and when I came home, I worked as a science teacher through the natural history museum and the program I worked for. Was in schools all over the state. I also got to work and tribal communities and down south on the border. I worked up north in little villages, up in the mountains and in schools here in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. It was through this amazing job that I got to meet kids all over the state who asked the same question everywhere I went, which is, “why do we manage water this way if it’s not good for rivers and it’s not good for our people?

I’ve spent a lot of my career trying to understand that question and trying to understand how we can transform the way that we manage our resources more sustainably. So, I went back to graduate school and got a degree in sociology and began doing research on water resources management. When I had the opportunity in 2010 to go work as an intern, initially, in the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the Obama administration, and then got hired to work at the Office of Management and Budget, and then in the Senate.

It was during that time that I really got to understand the nuts and bolts of how policymaking works at the national level and how you translate science into policy, how you translate policy at the national level into action that can help our communities on the ground. So, when I came back to New Mexico in 2017, I got asked by a number of people to run for the state legislature.

And that’s how I ultimately came to serve in our legislature. Then in Congress, and even through this work, as I’ve been serving over the last several years in a political role, the same thread has continued, that passion and that love for communities and that desire to really understand how we protect the most precious natural resources. We have our water, our land, our ways of life, our cultures and our heritage, and we need to build new opportunities for our community so that we can live here in this beautiful place for generations to come. It’s the thread that ties all of my life’s work together.

Mark Allison: It does seem like you were built for this time and job. That’s wonderful. A report that recently came out found that the Southwest is in this 1200-year drought, a mega drought, and that a large portion of that is because of human activities. For readers who aren’t “water nerds,” what are the most important details and the science, that they need to understand about our path forward around water policy?

Rep. Stansbury: Well, the science is clear. Climate change is already here and it’s already transforming our water systems in New Mexico. In order to address this change, we are going to have to adapt the way that we’re managing water, the way in which our infrastructure is built, the way in which we’re using science and technology, and the way in which we draw on our traditional ways of managing water and that knowledge.

We also have to address the ways in which we protect and restore our natural systems and our rivers. In order to do that, it’s really going to require a fundamental rethink of how we manage water at a policy level. A lot of my work, both before I became a public official and currently has been focused on that question: “how do we transform our water management and policy so that we can not only survive the change that is happening, but build more resilient, thriving communities through that change?” Some of the things that I think it’s important for people to understand is the climate crisis is so massive and difficult to address. So it’s really important to break it down into three areas of action.

On one hand, we have to address the climate crisis. We have to address the chemistry of climate change globally. And that means being aggressive and cutting our carbon footprint and carbon emissions across every sector of our society because we have to prevent our planet from crossing a threshold.

But climate change has already altered our global system and it’s already impacting New Mexico as that study reveals. So in order to get through the change that’s already here, we have to adapt our systems. We have to use the most up-to-date science and technology and tools to manage water.

In real time, we’re going to have to rebuild our infrastructure so that it’s more resilient and we’re going to have to work with our traditional communities, our Tribes, and our Pueblos, and our acequia communities to make sure that that infrastructure is resilient.

Those systems can adapt and be resilient through these changes. And we’re going to have to make fundamental changes in how we use water across every sector of our society. Finally, the other big piece of the climate puzzle is addressing the economics and in New Mexico, where so much of our economy is dependent on resource extraction, we have to be looking towards the future generation and how do we diversify our economy? How do we build more sustainable, local economic development? The communities that are on the front lines and are dependent on these jobs need to have sustainable livelihoods and viable economic opportunity going forward.

So, our work in policy has to span all three of those areas. We need to work on our carbon footprint. We need to address the challenges that are already here and build towards a more resilient future. We have to bring our communities to the table so that they can chart their own economic future and create their own vision for what they want their future to look like.

Mark Allison: I think that’s really helpful. We are increasingly involved in watershed health, permanent protections through wild and scenic designations, outstanding national resource water designations, and state legislative water policy reform. What role do you see for groups like New Mexico Wild, through grassroots organizing and community building, can we play? What should we be really paying attention to? And how can we best advocate to our policy makers and elected officials?

Rep. Stansbury: I think the most important thing that local organizations can do is to make their voices heard in the public policy process and ensure that those voices really represent your members, and that the people who take an interest in these issues are also well-represented in the policies and platforms that you’re advocating for.

For many, many years in New Mexico, our water and natural resources policy was really driven within agencies that had historic mandates that really are not well aligned with the values of many of our communities, and certainly are not well aligned with the needs we have for sustainable water resource management going forward in a time of climate change.

We’re really fortunate that we have folks like Mike Hamman, who was recently chosen as our state engineer, a person who is a forward thinker who can connect dots between the different ways we manage resources. But for many years, that’s not how water or natural resources were managed.

If we are going to be able to effectively rethink our policies and craft policies that reflect the best thinking, the best science and technology, and the values of our communities, we really needeveryone at the table in the process. What’s important for nonprofit organizations like New Mexico Wild is to listen deeply to the constituencies that care about those issues and bring those voices and values to your work. And then to take that work to our legislature, to Congress, and to those who have decision-making power to shape and transform the conversations around how we’re going to manage our resources going forward.

For me, and much of my thinking throughout my career doing, that means modernizing the way that we manage water in New Mexico so that it takes into consideration our watersheds at the highest level, it integrates all of the different sectors that use water, then it protects those traditional values and uses of water while our natural systems. I think that engagement in the policy process, mobilizing and educating constituents  and the collective power of the people what’s so important, especially right now.

Mark Allison: Excellent. Thank you. You raised Tribes and acequias. Obviously we can’t talk about water without those important voices and the knowledge and wisdom those communities bring to the table. Can you say just a bit more about the role Tribes and acequias need to play in this conversation in New Mexico to realize success?

Rep. Stansbury: Well, our Pueblos and our Tribes have been here on this landscape since time immemorial and continue to practice land and water stewardship and agriculture. Those families have engaged in these practices for countless generations and our acequias, which are not only the physical infrastructure, but also social institutions that are part of the DNA of our traditional Hispano communities, have been here for hundreds of years and those systems are the heritage of our landscape.

We have to ensure that not only are the individuals and communities that comprise our Pueblos and Tribes are at the table, but the values and voices of those communities are really represented in the policy process. Their systems have been resilient across much change in the climate and landscape. So, in the ways in which water has been traditionally managed, there are concepts in a secular culture that are about water sharing and as our water management is evolving.

We’re understanding the water sharing systems are the best way to manage water resiliently during times of change. We have a lot to learn, not only in terms of protecting those traditional systems, but also in bringing the concepts from those systems into the overall management process.

Water truly is sacred. Water is life and in many of our traditional communities, water is among the most sacred elements of the landscape and it is a living thing itself and has intrinsic value. Protecting the uses and ways in which water moves through the landscape is essential to preserving the cultures and languages and ways of life of our communities as well.

Mark Allison: Thank you. I wanted to turn to the historic infrastructure bill, and thank you very much for your vote on that by the way. Can you describe for our readers in New Mexico, what that legislation really means to the state and what you’re most proud of.

Rep. Stansbury: Well in November, president signed into law an historic infrastructure bill that makes a $1.2 trillion investment in modernizing our infrastructure. New Mexico is expecting to see $3.7 billion in formula funds alone and of that total amount, we’re expecting to see about $350 million for drinking water projects alone. The reason why that bill is so significant for water in particular is that it makes historic investments in our rural and our Tribal communities in terms of bringing safe drinking water to communities and addressing wastewater challenges.

It also makes billions of dollars in investments in drought and climate resilience through the Bureau of Reclamation’s budget. Much of that funding will come through grants. And our hope is that, particularly for our watersheds, like the Chama and others, the communities that rely on them will be able to compete for those dollars to address infrastructure needs, to build more resilience into the systems, and to do that restoration work.

So that is incredibly significant in terms of investments and it is probably the largest, single investment in water infrastructure that we’ve seen in generations. So it’s really an incredible piece of legislation from that standpoint. But we also still need to pass the investments that are in the Build Back Better Act, which includes investments in further water infrastructure and climate resilience.

We have to, again, address climate from all three of those angles: addressing our carbon footprint, and the resilience and economic pieces. We’re still fighting to get those climate investments passed in the Build Back Better Act.

Mark Allison: So, where does Build Back Better stand? Do you envision a path where of the investments you’re talking about are broken out into smaller pieces of legislation?

Rep. Stansbury: Well, currently the entire agenda is all packaged into one bill. We have a more than half a trillion-dollar package of climate investments that are in that bill, coupled with investments in a whole slew programs that will help lift families out of poverty and that will invest in community wellbeing, health care, elder care, childcare. And the reason why all those programs got packaged together is because, in order to pass legislation out of the Senate, you need 60 votes and many of those programs under the current 50/50 split in the Senate wouldn’t be able to get enough votes to get it to 60.

They put everything in one package that would be passed as a budget bill known as a reconciliation bill. And so the question that I think everyone is grappling with right now is, what remains in the final package? Do we split it into maybe two reconciliation bills, one of which is more focused on climate and some of the natural resources and physical investments that were in that package? And a second one that is more focused on social programs? Or do we find a path forward with the most common ground on both of those? I think those discussions are ongoing in the Senate currently. But I think the thing that is very positive is that the chairman of the energy committee, which is Senator Manchin, has signaled to the White House and to the public that he is in support of the climate provisions and is interested in moving forward on that.

So, we’re hopeful that we’ll have some sort of climate and energy package in whatever form it takes by the end of the year.

Mark Allison: Excellent. Well, we will continue to support and encourage that however we can. Thanks for describing to the implications for New Mexico.

I think sometimes if you read the paper, you can get caught up in the numbers, but it isn’t always clear what all that actually means for New Mexicans here. Finally, I want to note that we share a love of floating on rivers. I’m wondering if those trips you’ve taken have taught you anything that maybe you didn’t know before?

Rep. Stansbury: Well, I do love floating rivers,  and I think when you spend time on a river you learn the lessons of the river itself. I’m very much a student of historical texts and there’s a number of places in the Tao Te Ching, which is an ancient text about leadership and about life,

, that explores the best ways to be like water. And I think when you’re on a river, you see those lessons that water is yielding, that water gives life to all things and doesn’t ask for anything in return, and the river continues to flow regardless of what happens in life.

So I think being on a river restores your connection to the landscape and to the sacredness of life. But I think also it teaches you about the ways in which water shapes our landscape, the essential nature of it and the things that it provides to our communities.

And I also think that it is among the best ways to commune and connect with the natural world.

Mark Allison: I love that. Thank you. Lastly, is there anything that you would like to communicate to our readers that we haven’t had a chance to bring up?

Rep. Stansbury: Well, I know I was asked if I plan to float any rivers this season and myself and a number of friends put in for a number of permits, but we didn’t get any. But I try to float the Chama season a couple of times a year.

So I’m looking forward to getting on the Chama, which is one of my favorite rivers. And hopefully, I’d also like to do the stretch of the Rio Grande. That’s just upstream of Cochiti this year as well. So those are two of the rivers I’d like to float.

Mark Allison: Well, we’d love to be part of that white rock run if that happens.

We had terrible luck this year on all of our permits too. So, I don’t know if you can start an investigation to figure out who’s getting all these permits, but nobody I know got one. Thank you, Congresswoman so much for your time. It’s always wonderful to talk to you. We’re very proud. Let us know how we can be supportive and keep fighting the great fight.

Rep. Stansbury: It’s great to see you as well.

Mark Allison: Bye-bye. Thanks.