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.
Hydrologist Katrina Bennett describes extreme weather events like droughts and floods as the way that human societies experience climate change. These events are immediately noticeable and can have rippling impacts, including economic repercussions. These events will become more frequent and intense amid climate change, according to a paper Bennett published in the journal Water on April 1. Bennett’s co-authors include Carl Talsma and Riccardo Boero, who also work at Los Alamos National Laboratories. The study highlights the need to look at the extreme events together.
High above south-central New Mexico, satellite imagery shows a brown sea in arid Socorro County, broken up only by the Rio Grande, which splits the county and the state down the middle. Here in the northern reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert, it rains maybe 10 inches annually and the sun shines brightly 280 days a year. Zoom in a little closer near a town called San Antonio and the scene remains barren. Seventy-six years ago the U.S. government decided to test its first nuclear bomb here at the Trinity Site, about an hour’s drive from downtown. New Mexico’s yearly snowpack is trending down, along with overall precipitation, as the climate gets more trying for farmers.
It’s not just your imagination: Things really are greener around New Mexico this year. And the state Legislature’s interim Water and Natural Resources Committee heard the good news in an update from State Climatologist Dr. David DuBois. “We’ve done really well (for) this time of year,” DuBois told the committee. Not only has this water year, which begins on Oct. 1, been well above average, the temperatures have also been cooler than in the past few years, which also helps with the water situation.
This week we have a story about a new study in Nature that shows the “fingerprints” of climate change on 20th century drying. Next week, we’ll look at what some local governments in New Mexico are doing to prepare people for the continued impacts of warming. • There are two other recent studies worth checking out, including one in Nature about the risks of hydroclimate regime shifts in the western United States and another in Earth’s Future, published by the American Geological Union, about adaptation to water shortages caused by population growth and climate change. • Rebecca Moss with the Santa Fe New Mexican reports on the lack of progress on safety concerns at Los Alamos National Laboratory. • The Carlsbad Current Argus’s Adrien Hedden reports on New Mexico State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard’s executive order to create a “buffer zone” around Chaco Canyon. The order enacts a moratorium on oil and gas leasing on 72,776 acres of state trust lands in the area. • Writing for High Country News, Nick Bowlin covers a judge’s ruling that reinstates the valuation rule, which the Trump administration repealed. We wrote about those changes in 2017, after the first time a judge ruled that the U.S. broke the law when “updating” how royalties are calculated on federal and tribal lands.
Most New Mexicans understand that climate change is already happening and that its impacts will continue into the future. Now, a new study published in Nature reveals signs of human-caused climate change in the past, too. Relying upon computer models and long-term global observations, the peer-reviewed study shows the “fingerprint” of drought due to warming from greenhouse gas emissions in the early twentieth century. The researchers identified three distinct periods within their climate models: 1981 to present, 1950 to 1975 and 1900 to 1949. In that initial time period, during the first half of the twentieth century, “a signal of greenhouse gas-forced change is robustly detectable,” they write.