This week, we’re running a series of interviews with New Mexico’s four gubernatorial candidates, each of whom answered questions about issues related to water, energy and climate change. We kick off the series with Democrat Jeff Apodaca. Apodaca is a former media executive and the son of former Gov. Jerry Apodaca. NMPR: We’re coming off a bad winter and we’ve got drought returning to the state. What critical water issues will your administration tackle?
This week, NM Political Report is publishing interviews with New Mexico’s four gubernatorial candidates about water, energy, climate change and other environment issues. Throughout election season, candidates typically talk a lot about jobs, education, the economy and what their opponents might be saying or doing. Those are undoubtedly important issues. But so are conflicts over water, the fact that the southwestern United States is warming at nearly double the global rate, and chronically low morale at some of the state’s most important agencies. We didn’t tailor the questions we asked to elicit campaign promises or to paint candidates into an ideological corner.
For more than a decade, researchers have explained that warming will affect water supplies in the southwestern United States. Now in a new paper, hydrologist Shaleene Chavarria and University of New Mexico Earth and Planetary Sciences Professor David Gutzler show climate change is already affecting the amount of streamflow in the Rio Grande that comes from snowmelt.
“We see big changes in the winter and early spring,” said Chavarria. “Big changes in winter temperature, increases in springtime temperatures and decreases in streamflow.”
The paper, recently published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, is based on her graduate work in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. Snowpack is the main driver of the Rio Grande’s flows in the Upper Basin of New Mexico, explained Chavarria, who examined annual and monthly changes in climate variables and streamflow volume in southern Colorado for the years 1958 through 2015. She found that flows have diminished in March, April and May.
As high winds whipped dust, Siberian elm seeds and recycling bins around Albuquerque Thursday afternoon, dozens of people filed into the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque office to hear the agency’s 2018 forecast for water operations on the Rio Grande. “I’ll be the bearer of bad news,” said Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Manager Jennifer Faler. “This is the most extreme shift we’ve had from one operating plan meeting to another.”
Last year at this time, snowmelt was pouring down the river, flooding riparian restoration projects, filling out farm fields and even pressing against levees. This year, the lack of snowpack throughout the watershed’s mountain ranges has left the Rio Grande low and slow—and dry for 14 miles south of Socorro. Currently, the river is dry through the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
At the end of March, a federal court said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has not adequately considered protection of cultural sites near Chaco Culture National Historical Park when granting permits for oil and gas drilling. The full order is still forthcoming, but the six-page memo by Judge James Browning echoed comments by U.S. Department of the Interior Ryan Zinke earlier this spring. When Zinke postponed the sale of oil and gas leases on 4,434 acres of BLM land in San Juan, Sandoval and Rio Arriba counties, he told the Albuquerque Journal, “We’re going to defer those leases until we do some cultural consultation.”
Under federal law, agencies must consult with tribes that have cultural ties to an area being developed, whether the plan is to drill oil and gas wells, inundate a reservoir, build a pipeline or create a national monument. Yet, what often constitutes consultation is already considered inadequate by tribes and activists—and some wonder how the Interior Department will address the problem in northwestern New Mexico while simultaneously prioritizing energy development. President Donald Trump signed an executive order early in his administration directing Zinke to review the agency’s rules, including one guiding hydraulic fracturing on federal and Indian lands.
In springtime, rivers are supposed to swell with snowmelt, filling their channels and triggering fish to spawn. This year, however, the Middle Rio Grande has already dried south of Socorro. Record-low snowpack in the mountains upstream means that the state’s largest river is in trouble this year. And so are the species and communities that depend on it. Earlier this week, biologists headed to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to start scooping up endangered fish from pools and puddles and relocating them to a stretch of the river that is still flowing.
The tony neighborhoods tucked into the juniper-dotted grasslands on the east side of the Sandia Mountains represent yet another battleground in New Mexico’s water wars, one in which the state’s top water official has abandoned one side for the other. Last week, testimony ended in a trial over whether a private company can pump more water—114 million gallons more each year—from the Sandia Basin. Nancy Benson and her husband live in San Pedro Creek Estates, where they built their retirement home in 2000 after living in Albuquerque. She is shocked the state would consider granting the application after rejecting it previously. “This area is fully appropriated, there is nothing extra,” she said.
If you want to be ahead of the curve, sign up to receive our New Mexico Environment Review email on Thursday mornings. -John Fleck is no longer with the Albuquerque Journal, but he just can’t let go of the news. On Wednesday, he published a short piece on his blog about the “breakdown” in the partnership between Kirtland Air Force Base and the New Mexico Environment Department and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. The Air Force is responsible for the leakage of more than 24 million gallons of jet fuel into local groundwater supplies. According to a recent memo from the water authority to the New Mexico Environment Department, which Fleck posted online, the base’s new strategic plans are “disconnected from the stated goal of protecting drinking water and the aquifer and undermine Water Authority’s ability to ensure the safety and quality of drinking water.”
Furthermore, the memo notes that the updated strategy “implies that the site is moving from an active remediation strategy to a passive remediation strategy….” The authority opposes that “as it extends the damages to water resources and places liabilities on the water users and utilities, while allowing the responsible party to take minimal efforts towards corrective action.”
New Mexico’s wildfire season typically begins in May or June. But it’s only March, and New Mexicans are already dealing with wildfires. Earlier this month, a fire ignited on Kirtland Air Force Base, burning about 200 acres. The fire’s cause is still under investigation, according to base officials. But a lack of coordination between the base and local fire departments has worried some East Mountain residents.
This weekend’s warm and windy conditions were good for hiking or kite-flying. But they were tough on a river everyone is already expecting to be low on runoff this spring and summer. According to the National Water and Climate Center’s forecast for the Rio Grande Basin, the water supply outlook for spring and summer remains “dire.” In his monthly email, forecast hydrologist Angus Goodbody noted that while storms did hit the mountains in February, particularly along the headwaters in Colorado, snowpack in some parts of the Sangre de Cristo’s continued to decline. That means the river and its tributaries will receive less runoff than normal this spring and summer—and many areas may reach or break historic low flows. Last week, a new study in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature, also heralded troubling news.