Local communities need to prepare for the impacts of climate change, New Mexico State Climatologist David DuBois said during the Four Corners Air Quality Group meeting Wednesday in Farmington. The air quality group consists of state agencies from Colorado, Utah and New Mexico as well as federal and tribal agencies working together to address air quality in the Four Corners region.
This group started more than 15 years ago. At the time, the area was on the verge of violating federal ozone standards, Michael Baca of the New Mexico Environment Department Air Quality Bureau said. He said the air quality has improved, but ozone levels remain a challenge and federal standards have become more strict.
“We have a tremendous task ahead of us to address the climate challenge,” Claudia Borchert, climate change policy coordinator for NMED, said.
Borchert highlighted the state’s efforts to address emissions including the Energy Transition Act, the natural gas waste rule and the ozone precursor rules.
DuBois provided statistics focused on the northwest corner of the state. Since 1970, the area has warmed on an average rate of 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit per decade.
At the same time, the southwest United States has been gripped by drought for more than 20 years.
While the drought isn’t as dry as past droughts, DuBois said the warmer temperatures exacerbate the conditions.
“Drought is more complex than just lack of water,” he said.
DuBois said dry soil and increased evaporation means less water is available even when it does rain.
Dead and dying piñon trees dot the slopes of northwest New Mexico, particularly in an area north of Cuba. For the past few years, the State Forestry Department has been monitoring the die off. John Formby, a forest health specialist with the State Forestry Department, said bark beetles have been infesting trees that are already weakened by drought conditions. The State Forestry Department and the U.S. Forest Service conduct aerial surveys in the summer. Last year, Formby said, they did a special aerial survey of the Cuba area.
With the changing climate, incidents like droughts and heatwaves can be interlinked.
This was the case in 2021 when the drought conditions in the southwest United States triggered record-breaking heat, according to a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters on June 18. Johns Hopkins University researchers Benjamin Zaitchek and Mahmoud Osman along with their colleague Nathaniel Winstead conducted the analysis. Osman and Zaitech typically study flash droughts, or droughts that come on very quickly. “We usually think about drought as being kind of more of a creeping disaster that comes over time,” Zaitech said. He said flash droughts come fast and can have really damaging effects, like destroying soy crops in the midwest.
Drought doesn’t only impact the availability of food and water for people and, as dry conditions continue to grip the state even amid the start of monsoon season, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has urged residents to be “bear aware.”
Bear-human encounters tend to increase in drought times as wildlife moves into suburbs or even cities in search of resources.
In a press release issued earlier this month, Rick Winslow, a bear and cougar biologist with New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, said that droughts have historically led to more conflicts with bears “not only at camping and picnic sites, but also in more populated areas.”
Nick Forman is the carnivore and small mammal program manager for the department. He spoke with NM Political Report via phone about this topic. Bears, he said, are omnivorous and rely on food sources like acorns, currant berries and juniper berries. Last fall, he said, the state had decent production of these food sources and, currently, the juniper bushes have berries on them and wildflowers can also provide bears with food. “There’s definitely available food out there,” he said.
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory modeled future drought indicators to gauge how climate change could impact the Colorado River Basin. “We really think that drought is one of the greatest risks in terms of climate change to the stability of the Colorado River Basin,” said Katrina Bennett, a member of the Los Alamos team that published the results of that modeling in the journal Earth and Space Science.
Bennett said that drought is complex, but using a simplified machine learning, or artificial intelligence, process, allowed the team to assess the changing drought indicators. The team modeled indicators like soil moisture, runoff, evaporative demand, changes in temperature and precipitation.
Bennett said her team saw a large change in soil moisture as well as runoff and streamflow. She said changes in snowpack in the Upper Colorado River basin will mean that runoff from the snowmelt occurs earlier in the year. She said that is already well documented, but the modeling her team did found that even in scenarios where precipitation increases, the higher temperatures will lead to more of it evaporating rather than flowing downstream.
See our entire countdown of 2021 top stories, to date, here. Gripped by decades-long drought, water managers in New Mexico faced tough choices this year, including ending the irrigation season early. The year’s water woes began in the winter, when below average snowpack, warm temperatures and dry soil conditions limited the spring runoff. On top of that, New Mexico owed water to Texas under the Rio Grande Compact from previous years. In May, the Interstate Stream Commission sought federal financial support from the U.S. Department of the Interior for both long-term and short-term drought relief.
With monsoon rain bringing drought relief to New Mexico, cattle ranchers who had to sell off stock have found a glimmer of hope, according to Eric Scholljegerdes, a range animal nutritionist with New Mexico State University.
Scholljegerdes specializes in beef cow nutrition and he conducts research at the Corona Range and Livestock Research Center. He said droughts force ranchers to sell off herds and, as the drought impacts ranches statewide, that can lead to a large supply of calves and cows being sold, reducing the price that they go for. Monsoon storms this year drastically improved drought conditions in New Mexico, including taking about 10 percent of the state out of any type of drought, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor. But extreme drought conditions persist in the northwest and southwest portions of the state. The impacts of drought on cattle can be felt through every step of production.
When New Mexico’s recreational cannabis bill was signed into law in April, Mike Hinkle and Ryan Timmermans jumped at the chance to get into the industry. The two business partners, both recent transplants from the South, bought portable buildings, seeds, grow lights and a property in the village of Carson, with a domestic well they thought they could use to irrigate their plants. In total, they invested more than $50,000. “That’s actually the most money I’ve ever had in my life,” Hinkle said. “I was extremely excited because we thought we had a shot.”
This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.
Monsoon rains have brought a small amount of welcome relief to dwindling reservoirs in New Mexico but drought conditions will continue to impact the state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Office. The BOR had projected that Elephant Butte Reservoir, located near Truth or Consequences, could drop to 1 percent full. But the BOR now projects that the season will end with 97,000 acre-feet of water in Elephant Butte, or 4 percent full. “Our projections are based on the expected snowpack runoff and the expected demand from downstream users. In a year like this, we didn’t have much of a spring runoff,” said Albuquerque Area Office Manager Jennifer Faler in a press release.
Recent rains have brought some relief to Elephant Butte reservoir in southern New Mexico, but the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is still preparing for low levels that have not been seen since the 1950s. Mary Carlson, a spokesperson for the BOR, said three decades of drought conditions where dry years have not been offset by multiple years of good precipitation have had a negative impact on reservoirs throughout the state—and Elephant Butte is no exception. Elephant Butte provides the state with a wide range of economic benefits from attracting tourists to providing farmers and ranchers with irrigation water. Located north of Truth or Consequences in Sierra County, the state’s largest reservoir stores water for southern New Mexico and Texas and is an important component of the Rio Grande Compact. As of Tuesday, the reservoir was at just 7.3 percent of capacity.