September 19, 2020

Water reckoning looms in New Mexico’s future: ‘We’re not prepared for what’s ahead of us’

Rio Grande River, March 2009 (CC BY-SA 2.0) by gardener41

Water experts painted a grim picture of New Mexico’s water future during a panel discussion focused on water policy and management. The panel was hosted by Retake Democracy, an advocacy group based in Santa Fe. 

Dave Gutzler, a professor at UNM’s Earth and Planetary Sciences department, emphasized that climate change is here, and is already impacting the state’s precipitation patterns. 

“Anyone who’s lived here for a while knows that variability is endemic to New Mexico,” Gutzler said. “But the climate is now changing in ways that go beyond natural variability.”

Gutzler said climate change will have three major impacts to water resources in the state. 

“One of them is that the temperature is going up. It’s already going up rapidly,” he said, pointing to data that shows average temperatures in the state have already risen 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970s. 

“That is causing rapid decline in snowpack, rapid increase in evaporation rates, [and] a decrease in groundwater recharge,” he said. “Just the temperature change itself will have an effect on a lot of resources.”

Gutzler said the climate will also become more “energetic” and variable. 

“That means the rainfall will tend to be delivered in more intense doses, and the dry spells will also be more intense,” he said. 

And thirdly, he said, the weather will permanently move north. 

“We expect the winter storm track to shift northward and take the precipitation— rain and snow—with it,” he said. “There’s a projection of diminished precipitation itself in the cold season of winter and spring. So, put those three together, and it’s a three-step punch for water resource managers trying to deal with a more intermittent, harder-to-predict, and ultimately diminished water resource.”

Aquifers are being ‘mined to extinction’ while streamflows predicted to decline

Norm Gaume, a former director of the Interstate Stream Commission and former water resources manager for the city of Albuquerque, said the state isn’t tracking groundwater pumping effectively enough to manage the aquifers for the coming decades of water stress. 

“Many areas in the state get their water supply from aquifers, and groundwater from aquifers that are enclosed basins and are recharged very slowly. Those are being mined to extinction. And we have no controls,” Gaume said. “We’re flying blind and pretending that we can continue with business as usual for the foreseeable future. But we can’t.”

RELATED: Amid groundwater declines, water data gains importance

Gutzler said future surface water is at stake, too. Current models predict streamflows will decline 10 to 20 percent over the next 50 to 70 years. 

“What that means is that by the late 21st century, the average reduction in projected streamflow will be the equivalent to what we and previous societies that have lived in the southwest have come to regard as extreme drought,” Gutzler said. 

He pointed to the area’s current drought. 

“If we’re defining drought as just a shortage of precipitation, then we can find worse droughts in the historical record,” he said. “What’s a little bit different now, the temperatures are warmer, so the trend toward aridity makes the same amount of precipitation deficit worse in terms of water resources.”

Gutzler said the state will see wetter years in the future, based on the natural variability of the climate, but those wetter years won’t have the same impact. 

“In the presence of the climate change that’s ongoing, those wet years won’t be as effective in replenishing rivers and reservoirs compared to cooler epochs of the past,” he said. 

A need for equity in water planning

Panelists agreed the state needs to take a much more proactive approach toward water planning to be in the best position to respond to water shortages moving forward. 

So far, attempts at creating long-term water planning documents have come up short, Gaume said. He pointed to the 2018 State Water Plan, which was developed by the Interstate Stream Commission and the Office of the State Engineer. 

Gaume said the document didn’t properly address the gaps between water availability and demand. 

“It was an exercise that was far removed from what I call hydrologic reality,” Gaume said. 

RELATED: A river runs dry: Climate change offers opportunity to rethink water management on the Rio Grande

“We have no long-term water plans that are worthy of the name. Our collective decision as a state seems to me that we can get away with ignoring water planning and ignoring water governance, and we don’t need to bother about living within our means,” he said. “So things are really I think, pretty bad. We’re not prepared for what’s ahead of us.” 

Theresa Cardenas, president of the Middle Rio Grande Water Advocates, noted that progress isn’t being made in the 50 year water plan that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham promised as a gubernatorial candidate. Cardenas noted that the Interstate Stream Commission has budgeted just $330,000 for water planning, and said the 50 year water plan wasn’t addressed during the last legislative session. 

“We need that 50 year water plan to move forward,” Cardenas said. 

But she wants to see more equity built into the state’s water policies moving forward.

“Water equity occurs when all communities have access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water, that we are resilient in the face of flooding and droughts and other climate risks, and that we have a role to play in decision making processes, and how that relates to water management in our communities, and that we share in all of the economic and social and environmental benefits of the entire water system,” she said. 

“Is our water governance equitable? The answer to that is a very big giant no,” she said. “Bringing water equity to the forefront really does force us to look at sustainability, and how water can work for all, not just groups of people.”

State is ‘on the cusp’ of water emergency for next year

New Mexico is facing a “pretty profound” water emergency in the short-term, too, panelists said. 

A bad year for snowmelt runoff and an almost non-existent monsoon season has strained the state’s rivers this year, which will likely bleed into next year’s surface water budget. 

Gaume said the lousy precipitation this year has caused the state to incur a significant debit in water delivery on the Rio Grande to Texas for the first time since 1990. 

“The projection is that we will be in arrears 100,000 acre feet at the end of this year,” he said. 

Relief is not on the horizon. Gutzler said the coming winter will likely be a dry one, as we enter into a La Niña weather pattern for the winter and spring next year. La Niña years tend to deliver warmer, drier winters for New Mexico. 

Next year and beyond, the state and its residents will need to grapple with some tough water accounting and we’ll all need to adjust our water consumption behaviors, the panelists said.  

Gaume pointed to Albuquerque’s water conservation efforts. 

“Albuquerque has done a phenomenal job with conservation—it cut its water use in half,” he said. “It’s going to have to do that again. And maybe, again.”