Drive past any major body of water in New Mexico, and you will probably see the harsh reality of the state’s drought.
Simply put, our water supply is pretty much tapped out.
“There is no buffer left … no cushion,” David Gutzler, a recently retired climatologist from the University of New Mexico, told members of the interim Water and Natural Resources Committee.
“We have one hell of a water challenge,” he said. “And we better plan for it.”
The drought affecting New Mexico is just one of many events impacting its limited water supply, experts told the lawmakers Tuesday. As temperatures rise because of climate change, snowpack levels are limited and the speed at which they melt accelerates.
When they melt fast, that leads to less runoff water for the state’s waterways, Gutzler said.
“We get a lot less water in the river for the same amount of snow falling in the autumn and winter,” he said.
Committee members had a sobering morning full of similar testimony on New Mexico’s water resources, with all signs pointing to near empty.
Though monsoon rain is always of some help, it’s not enough to mitigate the combined effects of drought and other climate changes, said state climatologist David DuBois.
He said the 2020-21 rain season was the fourth driest on record. The year before was hardly better, he said — it was the seventh driest.
He added the effects are noticeable through the state’s ecosystem — forests, animals, crops.
The bad news, though not surprising, hit home for legislators in the hearing. Many agreed the forecasts would force New Mexico to change the way it thinks and handles water in a world where there’s not enough to go around.
Noting the state’s reliance on water compacts with other states to get and give water, Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said: “This is about economics. In the end, water will be about money.”
Cervantes said water that is available should be managed in economic terms — find out who owns it and make a deal to buy it.
He and Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, said a lack of water will affect the state’s agricultural industry, plus create other industries and provide jobs.
It also could stunt the state’s population growth, Woods said — a point the climatology experts did not contest.
Reservoir capacity statistics from around the state tell the story of an upstream battle to conserve water.
Near Truth or Consequences, Elephant Butte Lake is filled to just 7 percent of its capacity. El Vado Dam on the Rio Chama, about 80 miles northwest of Santa Fe, is at 10 percent.
In Santa Fe, the two city reservoirs — Nichols and McClure — are at, respectively, 55.6 percent and 13.2 percent.
As of this week, about half of New Mexico was in extreme or exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. It was worse a month ago, before recent rains brought some relief.
Some members of the committee suggested finding a way to get communities to share existing water resources. Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, told the committee many communities relying on the acequia system can find ways to do that.
But, she said, drought conditions can lead to conflict and tension over the use and transferral of water use as well.
“It’s not like a deck of cards where you can just move the cards around the table and reassign cards to another person,” she said. “Moving water rights has consequences and can affect water rights folks around you.”
Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, told the lawmakers many larger cities and municipalities in the state are doing a good job planning for water use and shortages.
But, he said that “even with rains, our reservoirs are empty.”
He told the committee his staff is working on reviewing water-related capital projects, drought operations and litigation related to water rights, among other steps. The commission has scheduled a July 21 webinar to discuss some of those preliminary steps for a state plan to address the issue.
Efforts to reach State Engineer John D’Antonio for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has convened both a drought task force and climate change task force to look for ways to mitigate the problem over the next five years.
Cervantes, who said he has served on the Water and Natural Resources Committee for about 20 years, said the state needs to act quickly on the issue.
Referring to supply shortages that took place earlier in the pandemic, he said, “If you think things were bad when you couldn’t get toilet paper, imagine your concern when you turn on the faucet and you cannot get water.”