It’s been a busy week, and we have plenty of news to share from around the state and region. -New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has filed the state’s counterclaims in Texas v. New Mexico & Colorado, the U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit over the waters of the Rio Grande. We’ve posted those pleadings on our site, if you want to read them for yourself. Want to get this in your inbox a day earlier? Sign up for the email list.
Last year, we wrote about campers abandoning fires over Memorial Day weekend, a time when New Mexico’s forests experience a big bump in visitor activity. Reporting that story was pretty startling. All told, campers just in the Jemez Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest abandoned 19 campfires over that three-day weekend. Tagging along with fire protection officers for just one day, we saw unsafe campfires (some because they weren’t contained within a fire ring, others because they were way too big for their rings), people firing guns close to other campers and drivers of both trucks and ATVs in places they shouldn’t be. People left campfires burning while hiking; others left smoldering fires and trash behind after packing up altogether.
Despite the rains that doused parts of New Mexico on Monday, the state officially entered into drought conditions on the Rio Grande when water levels in two key reservoirs dipped below a critical legal threshold. On Sunday, New Mexico entered into Article VII restrictions as storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs dropped below 400,000 acre-feet. Under Article VII of the Rio Grande Compact, that means Colorado and New Mexico can’t store water in any upstream reservoirs built after 1929. In the Rio Grande watershed, reservoirs capture and store native Rio Grande water and water piped from northwestern New Mexico via the San Juan-Chama Project. Each drop is earmarked for particular users and managed under the legal strictures of the compact.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall joined fellow Democrats to question U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt about his ethical and spending decisions. As reported by the Washington Post, Udall grilled Pruitt: Udall, describing Pruitt’s management of the agency as “disastrous,” again called on Pruitt to resign. The former Oklahoma attorney general, he said, has treated his “position of public trust as a golden ticket for extravagant travel and fine dining.” Irrigators in northwestern New Mexico are worried about the drought, prompting New Mexico State University to offer a workshop on water conservation, according to the Farmington Daily Times. Noel Smith also reports that the filing period has started for Navajo Nation elections. The Carlsbad Current-Argus has an update from the city’s mayor on efforts to remediate the area’s brine well.
The signs of rising temperatures are obvious across New Mexico right now, from the mountains to the river valleys, and from rangelands to suburban backyards. “Climate change for the Southwest is all about water,” said Jonathan Overpeck, who has spent decades studying climate change and its impacts in the southwestern United States. Warming affects the amount of water flowing in streams, and the amount of water available to nourish forests, agricultural fields and orchards. There’s also the physics of the matter: A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, demanding more from land surfaces. Plants need more water, too.
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. Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham currently serves as New Mexico’s congresswoman for the first congressional district. Before that, she worked in New Mexico state government as secretary of the Department of Aging and Long Term Services and the Department of Health. NMPR: We’re coming off a bad winter and drought has returned to the state, what critical water issues are you keeping an eye on right now? Michelle Lujan Grisham: I would actually disagree with your question.
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.
Over the next week, New Mexico Political Report will be reporting from…not New Mexico. Instead, we’ll be taking a closer look at the Colorado River. The Colorado delivers water to more than 36 million people in seven states and two countries. Its waters carved the Grand Canyon and, far more recently, allowed the growth of Sunbelt cities like Phoenix and Tucson. (No, neither is near the Colorado.
New Mexico still isn’t out of the woods when it comes to its long-running drought. That’s what Phil King, a civil engineering professor at New Mexico State University and water advisor to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, said. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor release shows that 98.66 percent of New Mexico has no abnormally dry or drought conditions. This is the highest percentage since the monitor began tracking drought conditions in 2000—breaking the record of 95 percent from last week. King says that the monitor only takes “a shallow look at drought,” tracking soil moisture and recent precipitation.