The next governor of New Mexico needs to understand climate change—its cause, the immediate and far-reaching impacts to our state and the need for substantive action. We’re far past a time when denial or doubt can be indulged. Today, there’s not even time for rhetoric or vague promises. In early October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that humans must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade. Failing to do so means failing to hold warming below levels that will have catastrophic and irreversible impacts upon the Earth’s ecosystems.
Globally, the temperature—averaged between land and sea temperatures—has already risen 1° Celsius, or 1.8° Fahrenheit, since 1880.
Last winter, snows didn’t come to the mountains, and the headwaters of the Rio Grande suffered from drought. In April, the river—New Mexico’s largest—was already drying south of Socorro. And over the summer, reservoir levels plummeted. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court battle between Texas, New Mexico and the U.S. government over the waters of the Rio Grande marches onward. At a meeting at the end of August, the special master assigned to the case by the Supreme Court set some new deadlines: The discovery period will close in the summer of 2020 and the case will go to trial no later than that fall.
On the downstream side of Elephant Butte Dam, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation employees navigate a stairwell above the Rio Grande, passing scat from the ring-tailed cats that like to hang out here, and enter through a door into the 300-foot tall concrete dam. Built in the early twentieth century, Elephant Butte Dam holds back water stored for farmers in southern New Mexico, the state of Texas and Mexico. At full capacity, the reservoir is about 40 miles long and can retain more than 2,000,000 acre feet of water. Jesse Higgins, an electrician who manages the powerplant at the dam, goes first and flips on the lights, which flicker and fire up after a few minutes. Labyrinthine tunnels burrow throughout, and water drains along the sides of the narrow, elevated path.
As drying in the Middle Rio Grande spreads, and a lawsuit over the river’s waters moves through the U.S. Supreme Court, a top Texas official is calling out New Mexico’s water boss. Texas’ commissioner on the Rio Grande Compact Commission, Patrick Gordon, wrote a letter to New Mexico State Engineer Tom Blaine earlier this month. In it, he noted that certain actions by Blaine could put New Mexico at risk for even greater damages if Texas prevails in its case on the Rio Grande. Specifically, Gordon is concerned Blaine will approve a copper company’s plan to pump more than a billion gallons of groundwater each year from near Hillsboro, N.M.
Doing so would would violate the Rio Grande Compact of 1938, Gordon wrote, adding: “These ongoing violations reinforce Texas’s action in the United States Supreme Court and add to its recoverable damages against New Mexico.”
Five years ago, Texas sued New Mexico and Colorado, alleging that by allowing farmers in southern New Mexico to pump groundwater near the Rio Grande, New Mexico failed for decades to send its legal share of water downstream. Texas filed the lawsuit after New Mexico sued over a 2008 operating agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, southern New Mexico farmers and Texas water users.
From Colorado to Mexico, communities siphon and spread water from the Rio Grande. For about a century, every drop of that water has been divvied up among cities and farmers. It’s not unusual to stand alongside an irrigation ditch in New Mexico and hear someone complain that too much water is flowing to Texas. But, in fact, Texas stands on solid ground in its lawsuit against New Mexico over the Rio Grande, oral arguments for which are scheduled for January in the U.S. Supreme Court. If New Mexico loses, southern farmers will take a hit—and so will the state budget.
Turning off I-25, south of Truth or Consequences, drivers head west through long, open stretches of creosote bush and honey mesquite. On stormy days the scent of rain on that Chihuahuan desert scrub sneaks its way into cars and trucks, even through closed windows. It’s only a 30-minute drive from the interstate to Hillsboro, but the trip is reminder that small communities in the southwestern part of the state still have a close relationship with the land—and with history. Only about 100 people live in Hillsboro, which today includes a smattering of houses and galleries, a post office and the General Store and Cafe on the south side of Percha Creek. But at its peak in the 1880s, the town was more than 10 times that size.