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.
Indigenous community leaders and activists held a virtual information session on Indigenous People’s Day to bring awareness to a water crisis in To’Hajiilee, a Diné community 20 miles west of Albuquerque.
The community of roughly 2,500 is currently relying on just one supply well, which pumps water up from the Rio Puerco aquifer. The water levels in the aquifer have dropped in recent decades, and what water that’s left is filled with corrosive dissolved solids that eat through the pump equipment and wreak havoc on the indoor plumbing systems of the residents in To’Hajiilee.
The Navajo Nation owns rights to surface water that could be piped into To’Hajiilee and serve the community. To’Hajiilee and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA) have already devised a project plan to build a pipeline that would transport the water from a holding tank in the county’s far western boundaries to To’Hajiilee.
But plans to access and transport that water are being thwarted by a development firm that hasn’t agreed to sell a two-mile easement for the pipeline. RELATED: A ‘humanitarian crisis’: To’Hajiilee’s aquifer is running out of water
“I thought today would be a really, really important day and an important message to share in front of my children that we are important, we are here, we need to be seen, we need to be heard and what better day to do it than on Indigenous People’s Day,” said Renee Chaco Aragon, a resident of To’Hajiilee and mother of ten. “We need people that are willing to listen, take time out of their lives and out of their day, to help us in our crisis.”
It’s not uncommon for the community’s single supply well to go down, Aragon said, disrupting daily life for everyone in the community.
“It is a very nerve-wracking thing to deal with on a day to day basis.
The Diné community of To’Hajiilee is named after a spring in the area, which at one point sputtered up enough freshwater to fill one bucket after another. That’s what the name references, roughly translated into English. Today, the segment of Rio Puerco aquifer that is located beneath the village, which sits just outside Albuquerque near I-40, is running out of water. “It appears the aquifer has been decreasing,” George Mihalik, an engineer with the firm Souder, Miller and Associates, told NM Political Report. “If you go up and down the Rio Puerco aquifer, like Laguna Pueblo to the south, they have similar issues with the wells there.”
Souder, Miller and Associates is working with To’Hajiilee’s chapter government to improve the chapter’s internal water systems. Mihalik has been working with To’Hajiilee for at least eight years, he said.
“I wish I had better news,” said Dave DuBois, New Mexico’s State Climatologist and director of the NM Climate Center at the New Mexico State University, during a weather outlook webinar hosted by the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) held in May. DuBois was looking at a three-month weather outlook map forecasting rain during New Mexico’s summer months and monsoon season.
“I really didn’t want to see this,” he said, swirling his mouse over a patch of brown in the Four Corners area. “Not a lot of good news there. This is showing some probability for below-average precipitation for northwest New Mexico.”
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Experts agree 2020 is shaping up to be a challenging year for water in New Mexico. Despite a near-normal snowpack last winter, dry soil conditions and a very warm spring — with hardly any precipitation since January — has thrust much of the state into drought conditions, again.
John Fleck, director of the Water Resources program at the University of New Mexico, referred to it as a “sneaky drought” during a separate presentation hosted by NIDIS.
A stream access dispute that has been brewing for years between public access advocates and landowners could be resolved once and for all, now that litigation has brought the matter to the New Mexico Supreme Court. In March, three conservation and public access organizations, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), and Adobe Whitewater Club, filed a lawsuit against the governor and the state Game Commission. While it’s hard to boil the issue down into a few lines, balancing the rights of landowners with those of the public is an integral component of the lawsuit, which asks the Supreme Court to strike down a 2017 state Department of Game and Fish rule that enabled landowners to restrict access to streambeds and banks that line waterways located on private property.
That rule was the result of a 2015 bill that became law, codifying thirty years of Game and Fish regulations that considered members of the public from walking onto private property from public waterways as trespassing.
RELATED: Heinrich defends stream access as issue heads to NM Supreme Court
The state Supreme Court took up the case at the end of March, and by mid-April, a contingent of landowners and other groups, including the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides (NMCOG), requested to intervene in the case in support of the 2017 Game and Fish rule, arguing that they would be negatively impacted by a potential Supreme Court ruling striking it down.
Groups on both sides of the dispute all have different ideas about what’s at issue, and what’s at stake, but all parties are quick to point out the dispute is incredibly complicated. And while there’s no shortage of opinions on the topic, stakeholders on both sides of the fence seem to agree on one thing: it was a 2014 opinion issued by then-Attorney General Gary King that started the whole thing.
Private property and public waters
The New Mexico constitution states that “unappropriated water of every natural stream, perennial or torrential,” within the state of New Mexico, is “declared to belong to the public and to be subject to appropriation for beneficial use, in accordance with the laws of the state.”
Everyone agrees that the waters of New Mexico are public, Kerrie Romero, executive director of NMCOG, told NM Political Report. What’s in dispute is how the public can access those waters.
This time last year, the riverbed of the Rio Grande south of Socorro was sandy, the edges of its channel strewn with desiccated fish. Even through Albuquerque, the state’s largest river was flowing at just about 400 cubic feet per second, exposing long sandbars and running just inches deep. This year, the Middle Rio Grande is booming, nearly ten times higher than it was last April—and it’s still rising. Running bank-to-bank, the river’s waters are lapping up over low spots along the bank, nourishing trees and grasses, replenishing groundwater and creating much-needed habitat for young fish and other creatures. This year’s high flows through the Middle Rio Grande come thanks to a mix of natural conditions, like snowpack, and also manipulation of the river’s flows from dams, diversions and interstate water-sharing agreements.
SILVER CITY, N.M.—On Monday morning, the organization responsible for planning and building a diversion on the Gila River convened a special meeting to discuss a letter from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In that letter, the federal agency reiterated concerns over the project’s schedule. During the special meeting, New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity board members placed blame for the delays squarely on the shoulders of Reclamation itself, along with the contractor hired to conduct environmental studies, environmental groups and the administration of former-Gov. Bill Richardson. NM Political Report obtained a copy of the letter, which is from Reclamation’s Phoenix office area manager, Leslie Meyers. In it, Meyers follows up on a March 15 conference call between Reclamation and the CAP Entity and asks if the group plans to continue spending money on the environmental impact statement (EIS).
All week, we look for stories that help New Mexicans better understand what’s happening with water, climate, energy, landscapes and communities around the region. We love when you read the NM Environment Review on our webpage. But wouldn’t you rather see all the news a day earlier, and have it delivered straight to your inbox? To subscribe to the weekly email, click here. Here’s a snippet of what subscribers read this week:
Last week, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the last of the bills from the 2019 legislative session, she line-item vetoed $1.698 million in New Mexico Unit funding for the Gila River diversion.
In a lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force, New Mexico alleges the military isn’t doing enough to contain or clean up dangerous chemicals that have seeped into the groundwater below two Air Force bases in the state. On Tuesday, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) filed a complaint in federal district court, asking a judge to compel the Air Force to act on, and fund, cleanup at the two bases near Clovis and Alamogordo. “We have significant amounts of PFAS in the groundwater, under both Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases,” NMED Secretary James Kenney told NM Political Report. PFAS, or per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are toxic, human-manufactured chemicals that move through groundwater and biological systems. Even in small amounts, exposure to PFAS increases the risk of testicular, kidney and thyroid cancer and problems like ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension. NMED Secretary James Kenney
“We want the groundwater cleaned up in the shortest amount of time possible, and we think at this point litigation is our best and fastest approach,” Kenney said.