NM drafting 50-year water plan to tackle climate change

·5 min read

Aug. 6—State officials are drafting a 50-year water plan in response to a changing climate that has kept New Mexico in a 22-year drought and is expected to worsen in the coming decades.

A multifaceted plan covering the next half-century is a way to get ahead of climate change's inevitable impacts on water supplies within an arid Southwestern state growing even warmer and drier, officials said Friday at an Interstate Stream Commission hearing.

The plan offers three overarching strategies for protecting and enhancing New Mexico's limited water supply — sustainability, stewardship and equity — as the state faces average temperatures rising as much as 7 degrees, river flows dropping and parched soils reducing runoff into waterways and aquifers in the coming decades.

Although the plan draws on the state's "leap ahead report," which gives dire predictions for the upcoming 50 years, the point is to take constructive action to avoid the worst water impacts, partly by using available tools and the knowledge of local communities that have survived in a harsh, dry climate for centuries, said Andrew Erdman, the commission's water planning program manager.

"It's not entirely doom and gloom, although there is some in there," Erdman told commissioners. "It's not going to solve all the state's water problems. This is really about moving us forward in terms of addressing climate change."

The Friday hearing kicked off a public comment period that will run until Sept. 14, the date the commission is scheduled to vote on finalizing the plan.

Erdman presented a slideshow that outlined the plan's many parts, but the commission didn't release the draft plan itself. Spokeswoman Maggie Fitzgerald said the draft had some kinks that need to be worked out before it is made public.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for crafting the 50-year water plan for the state to deal with its share of the global climate crisis, cause by massive greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere over the past two centuries.

The basic goals are to identify the impacts of climate change, assess vulnerabilities across the state, engage with New Mexicans and recommend actions, Erdman said.

Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, the commission's director, said the plan is fairly broad, with the intention of laying out what needs to be done.

Coming up with detailed blueprints for the "how" — such as designing the infrastructure or nailing down the right technology — is the next step, Schmidt-Petersen said.

Devising preventive measures to curb climate change, such as reducing carbon emissions, is a separate undertaking that other agencies are doing, he said.

Nelia Dunbar, who co-authored the leap ahead report, agreed the emphasis should be on how to resolve the challenges, rather than becoming resigned to a bleak outcome.

"We have deep resources of long-term environmental knowledge ... held partly be Indigenous peoples, as well as tremendous intellectual capability, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit in our state," said Dunbar, interim vice president for research at New Mexico Tech. "We will need to call on all of these as we move forward into a warmer, drier, future."

One beginning step in this plan is to assess water resiliency, or its ability to withstand drying conditions over time.

Warmer temperatures increase evaporation and dry out topsoils, making them absorb runoff before it reaches rivers or seeps into aquifers. The result is depleted surface and groundwater.

The plan recommends studying current water conservation, watershed health, water availability and diversity of water sources — for instance, how much is surface water and how much is groundwater.

Officials also should look at infrastructure to see if it can handle increasing water demands in a changing climate, Erdman said, noting this would include sufficient water storage.

Stewardship would include improving the health of rivers, lakes, reservoirs and "upland watersheds" or mountain water sources, he said.

Schmidt-Petersen said most of the runoff flowing into the Rio Grande and other rivers originates in upland watersheds, including from melting snowpacks. Maintaining these watersheds' health will be vital in the future, he said.

Riparian and other aquatic species must be protected, Erdman said.

On the sustainability portion, the state must work with farmers and ensure all of them have fair access to water-saving technology, he said.

The plan recommends updating administrative practices. That includes ending water-right declarations, strengthening enforcement, establishing statewide metering and developing alternative water permitting.

Fostering equity can start with engaging more with tribes, Erdman said. The state should tap tribes' traditional knowledge of conservation and form partnerships with them, he said. And, he said officials also should resolve Native American water rights disputes.

At the same time, they should work with acequia communities to ensure equity, he said. Within these villages, they should improve disaster response and recovery, support adjudication and strengthen local food production.

Dave DuBois, state climatologist who co-wrote a chapter in the plan, said the climate is definitely changing and requires preemptive actions.

Average temperatures have risen more than half a degree per decade in the past 50 years and could increase more quickly going forward, DuBois said.

Yearly precipitation isn't expected to decrease overall, but there are likely to be seasonal changes, such as more rain in the spring when warmer temperatures cause more of it to evaporate, DuBois said. And drier soils and vegetation will soak up more runoff, depriving rivers of the water, he said.

This plan's main purpose is to spur everyone from city officials to ranchers to make adjustments in how they've always done things, so they can operate in the new reality, DuBois said.

"We need to be able to change," DuBois said. "That's the hard part. We don't like to change anything."