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.”

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

(37) comments

Kiki Martinez

As Ms. Rowe stated someone's palms are being greased so that developers can get the green light on building. We need politicians with a back bone who are not afraid to say no!! Our city government needs an overhaul and it needs to begin with ousting Webber and other politicians like him who believe in the good ol' boys way of doing things - line my pockets and yeah sure you can build anything you want - this has also spilled over to the supposed "historic" area of town where there are homes/condos being built that signify nothing of historical design (Trey Jordan designs are a perfect example), also when it comes to locals trying to get permits for building/remodeling/improving they are given such a run a round it's disgusting - why? - because they don't have the money to line the right pockets. And getting back to the water situation, everything I've mentioned here relates to the current water shortage and how the shortage will be affect us all for years and years to come due to overbuilding and over crowding. Go out and vote so maybe, just maybe we can get some better leadership particularly at city hall that actually care about the people of Santa Fe and not just their pockets.

Dow Williams

Interestingly enough, I live in a sub division in Santa Fe where we share wells and by law are only entitled to .40 acre feet per household annually, which is more than adequate. Yet every quarter when I get the consumption reports, self reported meter readings, at least 3 households are way over that amount. When I complain to the HOA board, who has the water rights spelled out in our covenants as well, they could care less. I am a trouble maker they contend. If the state does not even help someone like myself enforce water rights...if you are not going to enforce current law, then what further action that any government agency could consider could possibly have any effect? If water conservation is truly the goal, enforce what you have on the books at least.

Richard Reinders

Water consumption on a well is not a HOA affair , the readings go to the state engineer who is under staffed but eventually wine fine or notice the abusers. Not your problem as long as you stay under .40

David Martinez

For the past 20 years New Mexico has been behind in water conservation.

The surrounding states Texas, Colorado, and Arizona have all had foresight into the water conservation in taking the right steps to bring water and its resources to their state. New Mexico is way behind and based on those states I’ve noted they are not going to give up anymore of the water rights so New Mexico is stuck in the middle and will never be able to recover.

I’m sorry that this has to be and I cannot point a finger to politicians even though that may have been one of several main causes…. but overall it’s also money and New Mexico does not have that resource to be able to change things to their advantage. You will see New Mexico continue these drought conditions for the next 20 to 30 years with the population remaining the same.

For those homeowners who are looking to build $2 to $3 million homes beware there will be a water shortage for the next 20 years!

I wish it could be better but this is reality!

Dan Frazier

Khal says 78% of water is used for agriculture and 1.4% is used for livestock. I suspect this is wildly inaccurate. Most agricultural crops are grown to create feed for animals, including primarily livestock. So, let's say, just for the sake of argument, that two-thirds of agricultural crops are devoted to animal feed. Now we find that 52 percent of water (2/3 of 78%) is used to grow crops for animals, plus that mysterious 1.4%, which may be what livestock drink. So any discussion of conserving water should start with not eating meat.

Khal Spencer

To be more precise, Dan, I did not say it. I quoted a document that had those numbers and cited my source. But I do suspect that rolled into that 78% agriculture is animal agriculture, either direct or indirect. I don't know the split and its worth further digging to find out how the agriculture portion breaks out.

Personally, I'm not a great fan of animal agribusiness for a variety of reasons, environmental sustainability being one of them. But that is a rant for a different day.

Stephen Verchinski

Dan, water used for cattle production is declining and this state will be losing it's ogallala aquifer based production in the near future. Current water use for cattle feed will transition to truck crops as soon as those bell peppers in your salads reach $3 each.

Khal Spencer

"...Agriculture uses the lion’s share of water (78 percent). The public uses 8 percent, and evaporation from reservoirs consumes another 7 percent. Other uses represent a small slice of the pie: Power generation, 1.61 percent; mining, 1.52 percent; livestock, 1.4 percent; commercial, 1 percent; domestic wells, 0.9 percent; and industrial, 0.46 percent. The demand side of the picture includes these uses plus the state’s obligations under two international treaties and eight interstate compacts, plus the use of New Mexico’s 22Native American pueblos and reservations and requirements to protect endangered species..."

This is from a 2005 source, but I suspect its not wildly out of bounds with today. For some reason, the stupid spam filter says the comment is spam if I include the link. So here is the reference: New Mexico Water Basics and An Introduction to Water Markets. The Business Water Task Force 2010

Mike Johnson

A very important set of facts to remember when evaluating any shortage, thanks Khal. And just think how much more water will be used when everyone starts growing their own dope to smoke. I do wonder if golf courses are in the agricultural number, I suspect they are. It's all about priorities, and of course expanding the supply, which is not hard to do, just expensive.

Charlotte Rowe

I couldn't agree with you more about golf courses. What an irresponsible, useless waste of water in a desert.

Stephen Verchinski

On reservoir issues I was Project Manager for a state sponsored reservoir study that outlined the issues. A copy or two is on file at the NM State Library

Bronwen Denton-Davis

Once freed from lockdown my first drive out and about was simply jaw-dropping. The amount of building everywhere in and out of town is just APPALLING. All those seeking a new life in NM had better be hauling a massive amount of H2O.

Charlotte Rowe

No lie! There are a bunch of condos / apartments being madly built not far from my neighborhood. Why on Earth do we want to try to get more people here, we don't have enough water as it is. I'll tell you why - because the builders have greased just enough government palms to give them a green light. THEY don't care about water, they just want to make their buck and then to heck with the citizenry in general. I hope nobody buys those things.

Barbara Harrelson

Why haven't the City and County declared a water emergency and started rationing? For example, car washes apparently are going on unchecked and serving water at restaurants is not restricted. All we hear from the city is the usual "conserve water," which, records show we are already doing quite well, considering.

Philip Taccetta

Now is the time we should be developing the technology for water purification. The Estancia Valley apparently sits on a huge aquifer of salt/non potable water. I’m certain that there are more such aquifers that could also be tapped - if the technology to purify it economically is developed.

Mike Johnson

Geologically speaking, the amount of ground water dwarfs the amount of surface water by several orders of magnitude. The fresh water in the ground is 30.1% of all earth's freshwater, and surface water is only 1/2%. Too many people see a transient surface water shortage as a serious problem, when in fact most all freshwater is underground and has been there for centuries. In the NTP basin north of Santa Fe, fresh water extends down many thousands of feet in the aquifers, and the water table is at about 40 feet below the surface in most valleys, as shown in USGS monitoring wells. There are many billions of gallons of fresh water available, all it takes is to drill a well and equip it with pumps. All that takes is money, but much cheaper than desalinization plants and long distance pipelines most likely.

Richard Reinders

Mike don’t you run into the same problem as California with pump excess amount of water you get land settling?

Mike Johnson

There could be some issues Richard, but in general the sedimentary rocks in most basins in NM are not as recent sediments as California, and are less likely to subside with H2O withdrawal.

Charlotte Rowe

Perhaps you should speak to a hydrologist. This is not an unlimited resource and we have to be careful how we parse it out. You may claim knowledge by saying things like "geologically speaking," but those of us with PhD's in geoscience will not agree with you.

Mike Johnson

I have a Ph.D. in geoscience, and if you doubt how much water is underground, I suggest you look at the monitoring wells nearby. This link shows one near me, and you will notice the top level in the well has gone up, not down in the last 15 years or so. Do the math on the sediment volume in this (NPT) basin I live in, over 250,000 acres, with a sedimentary rock thickness of 10,000 feet, at 20% porosity, an average 100 mD permeability, and saturated with H2O. Not unlimited, but a great deal of water here in this arid area. The USGS has much data if you want to look at science and not politics:

Khal Spencer

Yep, its time to talk geology.

What is the resource volume? Is the whole volume saturated or do we need to map lenses?

What is the present and future recharge rate?

What is the usage?

What is sustainable and do we see a decline or not, i.e., by analogy to the Ogallala?

What is the water chemistry and does it need to be treated and if so, how much effort? I recall a colleague of mine, Becky Roback, doing some groundwater uranium measurements back a few years ago and I thought there were heavy metal/redox issues in some of the groundwater in the basin.

And finally, where is John Fleck when you need him?

One thing to read here:

I'm not a hydrogeologist (Charlotte, you are a geophysicist, right? Mike another geochemist.), but this is something that can be discussed at the lay person level with a little work.

Charlotte Rowe

How about some significant subsidies for both commercial and residential installation of gray water systems while we're at it. I try to save my rinse water in the kitchen in a bucket then go dump it on my plants - would be great if it could be re-routed to the toilet tank.

John Onstad

According to the City our water comes from 4 sources: Buckman wells = 975 ac feet, city wells = 911 ac feet, Buckman diversion = 3901 ac feet and Canyon road reservoirs = 2,807 for a total of 8,594 ac feet. Thus only 33% comes from the reservoirs. This article states that McClure reservoir is at 12% capacity and Nichols reservoir is at 56% capacity doesn't tell the whole story.

Charlotte Rowe

It's more than enough to justify caution and conservation.

Kurt Browning

Almost 80% of NM water use is use is minimal, in the big picture.

Mike Johnson

"Efforts to reach State Engineer John D’Antonio for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful." No kidding, he could care less now, he has gotten his big payoffs from the Aamodt and other water thefts around the state.

Derek Gzaskow

I wonder how much the Santa fe living river takes from this. I believe the MS Links is watered with poo water until the sewage plants breaks, but ya a lot of affordable housing going on

Allen Olson

Good comments by Gonzales and Reindeers. Ever dwindling water supplies must be conserved for existing people and land uses in the state. They should not be squandered on new housing to be occupied primarily by wealthy out of staters fleeing their own environmental disasters (for example, Californians). Nor should water be wasted on land uses that are not truly necessary (like golf courses, lawns and decorative plantings). Sen. Woods is correct - the water emergency will stunt population growth. And, that is a good thing. Let us here what the mayor, councilors and commissioners think about this and vote accordingly. The problem is real and now, not down the road. It will affect us all and it will be painful. Everyone must be prepared to make sacrifices for the public good.

Tom Ribe

Most of the water in the Rio Grande is wasted growing feed for dairy farms in the southern part of the state. Also our watersheds are severely degraded by overgrazing by cattle sanctioned by the US Forest Service. It is time to take a very critical look at the livestock industry in the Southwest and transfer beef production to the midwest where there is rain to support it. Vast amounts of water go to grow alfalfa. Water use by cities is fairly modest in comparison. But ranchers have political clout and they will probably continue to waste our water and trash our national forests for almost no economic benefit and a tiny amount of beef produced. Time to get real here folks.

Richard Reinders

Rancher don’t have clout they own the water, they don’t need clout.

Mike Johnson

[thumbup] And they own the land too, the government hasn't seized all private property.....yet.

Carlos Gonzales

[angry] So is it just me or is EVERYONE missing the obvious; if you continue to build more structures, you will need more water. I understand the need, but if you KNOW water is an issue right now, should you increase the demand? Simply said, we should be pushing our local and state representatives to at least pump the brakes on those projects that are a demand on more water. When they identify the price tag for water, that will be passed on to us taxpayers. I get it, we will pay it. But should we just blindly follow these decision makers into oblivion?

Richard Reinders

They count on developers to bring water rights to the project and sign them over to the city, but if a water rights historical beneficial use drops by 15% to 25% because of lack of supply you are going to be short. The city is still watering Marty Sanchez golf courses, flooding streets with broken sprinkler heads and so on. Farmers are doing their part they already had 100% of irrigation water curtailed or stopped, the city should do the same like stop golf course and median watering and so on.

Patricia Greathouse

Water rights mean nothing if there’s no water.

Ivan White

!! Thank you !!

Lynn k Allen

Right on!!

Macka Doodle

There’s a dearth of affordable housing in Santa Fe and with the recent influx of remote workers choosing to live in Santa Fe prices will be driven up and working class people will continue to be priced out. Just saying “don’t build any structures” isn’t a solution. Blue collar people can scarcely afford to live in Santa Fe and hypothetically new apartment structures helps alleviate that problem. When service workers can’t afford to live in a city with a “haves and have nots” population it presents its own problems. Just ask Montana about that.

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