Scientists say dire climate change scenarios should be taken into account in Colorado River Basin water management

Climate change threatens the availability of water in the Colorado River basin and water managers need to take steps now to prepare, the director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico John Fleck and Brad Udall, the senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State […]

Scientists say dire climate change scenarios should be taken into account in Colorado River Basin water management

Climate change threatens the availability of water in the Colorado River basin and water managers need to take steps now to prepare, the director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico John Fleck and Brad Udall, the senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, argue in a recent editorial.

The two scientists published the editorial in last Friday’s edition of the research journal Science.

“We share the concern that the decision makers are not doing what we think needs to be done to fully incorporate the risks of climate change in the decisions that have to be made over the next few years on the Colorado River,” Fleck said in an interview with NM Political Report.

The editorial starts by highlighting a hydrologist’s analysis in 1920 that found the Colorado River could not support future water demands.

“No one heeded his warning,” Fleck and Udall wrote.

Now, a century later, water managers are grappling with questions as climate change reduces the amount of water available.

Both Fleck and Udall have been studying the water availability on the Colorado River for years.

“My work tended to focus on optimism and where solutions might be found in terms of collaboration and water conservation,” Fleck said.

Meanwhile, Udall’s work has focused more on the dangers and risks of climate change.

“It’s really interesting to see Brad and I merge and write together on this piece because I think we’re a lot closer to those dire scenarios than I expected we would be this soon,” Fleck said.

Fleck said he remains optimistic about solutions.

“I think humans are good at adapting to difficult situations, I just feel like it’s happening more quickly than I thought it would,” he said.

Fleck said this will require really skilled diplomacy and water conservation, which must be done faster than he had anticipated even five years ago.

New Mexico’s Colorado River water comes from the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River. This river flows through San Juan County from Navajo Dam to near the Four Corners National Monument.

While the San Juan River only flows through a small part of the state, Fleck said Albuquerque and Santa Fe use Colorado River water through the San Juan-Chama project as an important source of their municipal water supply.

“If we don’t do a good job at solving problems on a basin-wide scale, that could spill over to risks to those critical central New Mexico water supplies,” Fleck said.

He said water managers should be realistic with their communities about the shrinking supply of water.

“These are really hard conversations to have,” he said.

Some agencies, like the Albuquerque Bernalillo Water Utility Authority, have considered dire climate change scenarios in their long range planning, Fleck said, adding that he did some work for the association in the past.

“They did a real public process that let people talk about what options do they favor for solving problems, for where they thought conservation could happen, for where they thought new water supplies could be available, for how they do wastewater reuse and so on,” he said.

This led to the creation of good strategies for addressing some of those potential problems that could occur as the area experiences rapid population growth in a dry area. Fleck said those plans need to be updated on a regular basis, especially as new studies come out about climate change.

There are two major reservoirs on the Colorado River – Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Water levels have been declining in those reservoirs. Fleck said they are reaching alarmingly low levels.

“Lake Powell is conceivably flirting in the next couple of years with levels at which it would no longer be able to generate power,” Fleck said.

Hydropower from Lake Powell is an important source of clean electricity for many places in the west, including parts of New Mexico.

Beyond reducing the availability of clean hydropower, the low levels in Lake Powell also reduce the cushion that the upper basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah have in terms of the ability to meet the Colorado River Compact water delivery requirements to the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California.

If enough water does not reach the lower basin states, the states in the upper basin will have to cut back in response.

Fleck said it is unknown what impact that could have on New Mexico’s supplies, but, he added, it is a risk best managed now and, if possible, avoided.

The upper basin states developed a plan a couple years ago to store extra water in reservoirs like Navajo Lake that could be released if needed to meet the compact delivery requirements. Fleck said the upper basin states are still setting up the programs to get the water into that storage. That will be done through demand management, such as paying farmers not to irrigate and instead placing the water that is saved through that process in storage.

The editorial highlights for every one degree Celsius of warming, the Colorado River’s flow is expected to decline by 9 percent.

One reason that there is less water available to use is because there is less runoff from the mountains that feed the rivers.

Snowpack used to be a reliable source of water in the spring and summer, Fleck said. However, dry soil means that more moisture is absorbed into the ground and less runs off into the river.

While the snowpack this year is 80 percent of average, it is delivering less than 30 percent of the average river flows, Udall and Fleck highlight in the editorial.

This isn’t only impacting the Colorado River Basin, but can also be seen in the Rio Grande.

Fleck said the editorial is not trying to prescribe an answer to the questions but is instead encouraging water managers to be ahead of the curve and to have public conversations so that they know what their going to do if certain climate change scenarios play out.

“I hope the decision makers will listen to our plea to use some realistically serious climate change scenarios in the planning we do to try to deal with our problems over the next five years,” he said.

We're ad free

That means that we rely on support from readers like you. Help us keep reporting on the most important New Mexico Stories by donating today.

Related

Effort to challenge six laws enacted last year comes to an end

Effort to challenge six laws enacted last year comes to an end

Earlier this month, the New Mexico Supreme Court denied and dismissed the effort to challenge six laws enacted in 2023. The New Mexico Supreme…
Governor to call special session for public safety legislation this summer

Governor to call special session for public safety legislation this summer

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that she will call the Legislature into a special session this summer to address public safety legislation that did…
Emily’s List endorses seven candidates for Legislature

Emily’s List endorses seven candidates for Legislature

Emily’s List, a nonprofit that supports women candidates and reproductive rights, endorsed seven incumbents facing general election opponents in New Mexico legislative elections. All…
NM receives $156M to boost access to solar

NM receives $156M to boost access to solar

New Mexico will receive millions in federal money to increase access to solar power. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced recipients of the $7…
Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a final rule Friday to designate two types of PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances. Those two chemicals are perfluorooctanoic…
BLM finalizes controversial public lands rule

BLM finalizes controversial public lands rule

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management finalized its controversial public lands rule on Thursday. This rule is controversial because it allows for conservation leasing…
Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican The main things that bring Brayan Chavez to school every day: Seeing, talking to and engaging with…
Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican Brittany Behenna Griffith has a laundry list of adjectives to describe the ideal special education teacher:…
Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican A challenging task awaits New Mexico lawmakers in the next 30 days: Reconciling three very different…
Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Amy Maxmen, KFF Health News Four years after hospitals in New York City overflowed with covid-19 patients, emergency physician Sonya Stokes remains shaken by…
Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Friday $10 million in funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act was awarded to six tribal nations and…
Proposal to curb executive powers moves to House Judiciary

Proposal to curb executive powers moves to House Judiciary

The House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee discussed a potential constitutional amendment that seeks to limit the governor’s executive powers. The committee approved…
Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

An abortion fund provider unveiled a rebrand and offered an open house in Las Cruces to celebrate the organization’s new name, mission and values. …
Stansbury introduces judicial ethics bill on U.S. Supreme Court steps

Stansbury introduces judicial ethics bill on U.S. Supreme Court steps

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury announced a bill on Thursday that would, if enacted, establish judicial ethics to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Judicial Ethics…
Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

At the national level, abortion is still a high-stakes issue with both major presidential candidates talking about it in their campaigns, but it may…
Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

An abortion fund provider unveiled a rebrand and offered an open house in Las Cruces to celebrate the organization’s new name, mission and values. …
Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

At the national level, abortion is still a high-stakes issue with both major presidential candidates talking about it in their campaigns, but it may…
How the AZ Supreme Court decision on abortion impacts New Mexico

How the AZ Supreme Court decision on abortion impacts New Mexico

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that an 1864 abortion ban is enforceable, throwing another state bordering New Mexico into the situation of…
Effort to challenge six laws enacted last year comes to an end

Effort to challenge six laws enacted last year comes to an end

Earlier this month, the New Mexico Supreme Court denied and dismissed the effort to challenge six laws enacted in 2023. The New Mexico Supreme…
Vasquez calls out Republicans for ‘inaction’ on border policy

Vasquez calls out Republicans for ‘inaction’ on border policy

U.S. Rep. Gabriel “Gabe” Vasquez, a Democrat who represents the state’s 2nd Congressional District along the U.S.-Mexico border, cosponsored a resolution on Monday calling…
Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

At the national level, abortion is still a high-stakes issue with both major presidential candidates talking about it in their campaigns, but it may…
NM receives $156M to boost access to solar

NM receives $156M to boost access to solar

New Mexico will receive millions in federal money to increase access to solar power. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced recipients of the $7…
Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a final rule Friday to designate two types of PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances. Those two chemicals are perfluorooctanoic…
New Mexico Voices for Children has new leadership

New Mexico Voices for Children has new leadership

New Mexico Voices for Children, an organization that focuses on tax policy and how it impacts children in poverty, has new leadership. Gabrielle Uballez…

GET INVOLVED

© 2023 New Mexico Political Report