Future with less water predicted in plan

·4 min read

Aug. 6—In 50 years, Rio Grande flows in New Mexico could decline by 30%.

Water in reservoirs such as Elephant Butte is expected to evaporate much faster, and soil and trees across the state will suffer with scorching temperatures and less water.

The scale of climate change impacts on the state's water supplies demands immediate action from every level of government, according to the draft 50-year water plan released by the Interstate Stream Commission this week.

Andrew Erdmann, who manages the state water planning program, said the plan won't solve every water problem.

But the agency wants the plan to be a "living document that won't just sit on a shelf."

"This is really about moving us forward in terms of addressing climate change," Erdmann said.

The report, requested by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, has as its foundation a leap-ahead climate analysis by a state panel of scientists.

That research found New Mexico's average annual statewide temperatures in 50 years could increase by as much as 7 degrees.

Higher temperatures will create a more arid climate.

A drier New Mexico increases the likelihood for hotter, more intense droughts.

Snowpack may decrease, and runoff could happen earlier in the year.

"We're looking at lower streamflow and aquifer recharge," Erdmann said.

Those diminished water levels could stress plants and soil statewide.

In the 50-year plan, the water team warns that "future generations will bear the burden of our inaction" if we "choose not to plan and prepare" for climate impacts on ecology and communities.

The report recommends ways to plan for a hotter future with less water.

New Mexico should protect upland watersheds from forest fires that can impact water quality.

Water resilience means devoting equal resources to managing groundwater and surface water supplies, said ISC director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen.

"Ultimately, as we go through drier time periods, it is these underground aquifer systems that we rely on," he said.

The state may look to alternative sources as New Mexico faces less water supply and more demand.

Those backup supplies could include treated oilfield or municipal wastewater, deep wells, brackish water and cloud seeding.

Aron Balok, an ISC commissioner and superintendent of the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District, said using diverse water sources is "only half of the equation."

"If I haven't made arrangements to replenish that supply and I'm mining that (groundwater), all I've done is kick the can pretty hard," Balok said.

The irrigation expert also cautioned against overreliance on fallowing farm fields to reduce water use, a practice he warned could have irreversible effects on agriculture.

Other plan recommendations:

⋄ Protect acequias and other community-managed irrigation systems

⋄ Help farmers and municipalities conserve water

⋄ Modernize water rights administration and enforcement

New Mexico's water infrastructure was "not built for climate change," according to the planning team.

The water plan encourages the Legislature, state agencies and communities to take advantage of a historic influx of project funding. New Mexico is slated to receive $355 million from the federal government's bipartisan infrastructure law for water projects.

Drought and aridity are not new for the state. But the plan warns that climate change will "upend the historical trends on which water use practices and interstate compacts are based."

Current state water policies may not hold up to the future water reality.

In most regions, the planning team writes, "any new use of water such as cannabis cultivation or expansion of existing water use must come at the expense of an existing water use."

The report recommends learning from tribes, pueblos and acequia communities that have centuries of experience managing slim water supplies.

Tribes and acequia groups contributed recommendations to the report.

Commissioner Paula Garcia, who is also executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, said policies should revolve around "being good stewards" and preserving water for future generations.

The report highlights projects that are good examples of resilient water management, including:

⋄ Agencies that work together to boost Rio Chama flows for weekend rafting and fish habitat

⋄ The state strategic water reserve, which allows for leased water rights to be used in important river stretches

⋄ Cities such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe that have diverse water supplies and encourage conservation.

The 50-year plan is separate from the state water plan, which must be updated every five years.

Hotter future

—When a 2022 high school graduate approaches retirement age, Albuquerque's climate will feel like Roswell's climate today. Taos will feel more like Farmington.

—New Mexico's overall water supply could shrink by 25%-30% over the next 50 years

—Agriculture currently accounts for 77% of New Mexico's water use

—Higher temperatures in 50 years could prompt a 22% increase in water needed to irrigate crops