ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Some of New Mexico’s top climate and water experts warned state lawmakers Tuesday that the effects of the drought on water supplies have been worsened by climate change, specifically an ongoing, long-term warming trend.
They told members of a legislative committee that the drought is a harbinger of still more arid conditions to come as temperatures continue to climb and rainfall becomes more variable. Human-caused climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years.
Increasing temperatures also can lead to the snowpack that feeds rivers and streams melting several weeks earlier and more rapidly, resulting in more evaporation. That means less runoff into the Rio Grande, Pecos and other rivers, and that’s not going to change since the experts said there are no indications that the long-term temperature trend will go away.
New Mexico uses all of its water and is pretty well tapped out when it comes to new supplies, said retired professor David Gutzler. He added that long-term climate change should lead policymakers to expect and plan for diminished surface water supplies in the decades going forward.
Groundwater supplies also are being depleted as more people are forced to pump water to make up for dwindling flows.
“We’re seeing in New Mexico as bad a situation with regard to water supply as anywhere in the West, if not worse,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the Interstate Stream Commission. He noted that drought still persists across the state and reservoirs remain empty despite the start of summer rains.
Schmidt-Petersen shared slides that showed conditions getting drier and drier over the last 20 years. He described the conditions this year as the most severe drought in two decades of dryness.
Gutzler issued a plea to the legislators, asking that they take New Mexico’s long-term water challenge seriously and provide cities, farmers and other users with guidance and ground rules for managing shrinking supplies.
“I think that we ought to be able to cooperatively address the fact that we have set up more demand for water than we have supplies over the long term through cooperative shortage sharing and very careful attention to the way we allocate new water rights,” he said. “ … The problem we face is real and is unlikely to go away even if and even when we get a couple of years of wetter weather.”
Some of the discussion focused on developing a more formal system for building partnerships among local districts so water can be shared when shortages arise. Such arrangements already are in place in some parts of New Mexico, including with Jemez and Zia pueblos and nearby acequias, which are traditional irrigation systems that deliver water to farmers.
Some lawmakers voiced concerns about the price of water increasing as supplies shrink, saying the cost could one day drive a wedge between society as food production becomes more expensive.
“We have to realize this is about economics,” said Sen. Joe Cervantes, a Democrat from Las Cruces, where he pointed to small farmers who have had to sell their operations because they can’t afford to pump groundwater.