The warming climate that has kept New Mexico in a drought for the past 20 years and is depleting water supplies will continue into the next half-century and must shape long-term planning, state officials said in a virtual hearing Wednesday. 

One expert painted a grim picture of what the state will grapple with in the next 50 years — temperatures rising as much as 7 degrees, drier soils reducing runoff and the recharging of aquifers, higher evaporation and lower river flows, more intense wildfires leaving landscapes barren and more vulnerable to erosion, and warming waters becoming more prone to bacterial outbreaks. 

In short, the quantity and quality of water will decrease substantially in the state unless effective measures are taken. 

"The impact of climate change on New Mexico's water resources is, unfortunately, quite overwhelmingly negative," said Nelia Dunbar, director of the state Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources. 

In the webinar, Dunbar and Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the Interstate Stream Commission, discussed the harsh realities of what has been called a megadrought gripping the Southwest as the world faces a reckoning for the massive greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere in the past 150 years. 

Their presentation kicked off the third phase of a 50-year water plan Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has called for in response to New Mexico's climate crisis. 

Previous phases involved preliminary planning and assessing how water resources will be at risk in the future. This phase will bring in scientists and other stakeholders to create strategies for countering the effects of climate change on water and making these resources more resilient or able to withstand the warming trends. 

The final phase will be to make recommendations to local, state and federal leaders next year. 

Aside from the rainy respite of the past few weeks, the state has been in the most severe drought in the past 20 years, Schmidt-Petersen said. 

This "exceptional drought" extends west to California and Nevada and shows signs of spreading to the Northwest, he said. 

The San Juan River basin, which is tied to the severely depleted Colorado River and is a key supply of New Mexico's surface water, is experiencing an extraordinary drought, Schmidt-Petersen said.

Low river flows are contributing to New Mexico's reservoirs dropping to historic lows, giving water managers no buffer to get through the summer. 

But with the climate changing, any 50-year water plan that's based on current or past weather patterns will be flawed, he said. 

"We also need to look forward," Schmidt-Petersen said. 

A group of climatologists recently published a study indicating the Southwest was in the worst drought since the late 1500s. Part of it is due to La Niña, a Pacific Ocean-cooling event that pushes storms northward as they approach the continent, making the Southwest drier. 

La Niña dissipating has led to some much-welcome rainfall in recent weeks, but the moisture is barely putting a dent in the prolonged drought conditions. 

Overall, precipitation will remain about the same in the next half-century, but less of it will replenish water supplies because warmer air causes greater evaporation and holds more water than cooler air, Dunbar said. 

Hotter temperatures will make the soil more arid, resulting in more rain and melting snow being absorbed in the soil's top layers and not flowing into rivers or aquifers, she said. 

The more intense heat will parch soil, creating dirt devoid of nutrients, and it will dry out vegetation, turning some forests into tinderboxes. This will stoke more wildfires that, in turn, will scorch hillside terrain, leaving it denuded and more prone to erosion, she said.  

She noted a recent study by the state Environment Department identified 2,300 miles of streams in New Mexico that were warmer than they should be.

Water that's too warm can breed bacteria such as E.coli, she said. It also can become uninhabitable for certain fish.

One graphic Dunbar presented vividly illustrated how temperatures will rise relative to global greenhouse emissions. The more these gases are curbed, the less warming will occur. 

It demonstrates the simple fact that people can take actions to prevent the worst scenarios, she said. 

Still, it's better to pursue adaptive strategies to prepare for the effects of climate change, Dunbar said. 

"New Mexico's climate is warming," Dunbar said. "The question is how much rather than will it continue to climb?"

(12) comments

joe martinez

We have state officials that can predict what it will be like in 50 yrs? Too smart for us country folks. Dems no doubt. They should be in DC. Too many people have moved here. Stop the flow.

Joe Brownrigg

If we do not plan ahead, we'll have the too many people you dread!

Joe Brownrigg

And yet, a member of the City Planning Commission recently said we had no water shortage problems! There is a serious disconnect here!!!

Robert Fields

As the west dries and bakes, we are seeing the first of this country’s environmental and climate change refugees. Santa Fe’s water supplies are getting a bit tenuous and that’s just going to get worse. All the building is going to make the looming shortages harder to manage and harder to replace. It’s short-sighted madness. Houses will get cheap when there isn’t the water necessary to occupy them any more. Great for buyers (if there are any). Not so great for sellers. And the way the climate issues are rapidly becoming a crisis, this may all gel a bit faster than many thought. All we need is a fire around the reservoirs to take those offline and we become dependent on wells and trucks.

Bruce Taylor

Agree on all points.

Alder del Tangio

A moratorium on new development, currently running rampant in Santa Fe, would certainly help. Some towns in the west are already doing just that. Sadly, our own city leaders can't see beyond the concept of growth at all costs.

Bruce Taylor

We clearly need not only a moratorium on new development, but also a major revision of all development codes that point toward a circular- and regenerative-climate community. All building codes/restrictions that limit the use of any materials and process that do not factor in embodied carbon; all energy-related codes. Water is the same, all codes and regulations regarding water use, in both legacy buildings and outside uses, as well as new, must be immediately upgraded. I am thinking specifically about developmental schemes for the Mid-town Campus (old College of Santa Fe). Now is the hour to halt developmental thinking that does not use a circular - regenerative economy and community framework (also known as the "doughnut" economy) approach. Santa Fe has a rare opportunity to do something truly groundbreaking that will draw global attention. Now is the hour. Water is a reason. So is Climate Change-causing carbon and other GHG.

Robert Fields

Exactly. We have been non-renewable for far too long and may have already exceeded the capacity of the planet to recover on its own now that it appears we are hitting tipping points.

It’s so much easier to fix and correct things when you don’t have a lot to fix or correct but things are getting away from us and out of control faster than most thought. Smoke from wildfires in Russia is here. Smoke from wildfires on the west coast is ruining air quality on the east while now making its own weather. The west is not just drying but baking. Until we stop fossil fuel carbon emissions where we can start turning back the clock, all we can do is slow these effects and treat symptoms while the disease progresses. Basically palliative care transitioning to hospice.

Richard Reinders

They said the drought is worse since 1700's was there fossil fuels in the 1700's? This is mother natures cycle of weather maybe a 400 year cycle. I am not saying we are not having global warming, I just question the source for it. I agree we should replace fossil fuels , but only when we have a viable alternative.

Sasha Pyle

Time to dissolve the traditional stranglehold that oil/gas and nuclear industries have long held over our state’s economy. Methane emissions, flaring wells, water pollution from fracking and dire risks to our groundwater from nuclear waste and weapons manufacturing have got to end. First step: our Legislature must divorce school funding from oil and gas revenues. We need to fund education with activities that have a future. Second, Los Alamos Lab should not have free rein to keep us in the Dark Ages. Calling ramped-up Bomb production ‘modernization’ when it is, in fact, the most backward-looking waste of resources imaginable, they persist in doing the exact opposite of what’s needed. Creating endless waste streams that will permanently imperil our groundwater is a sin.

Lynn k Allen

Mitigation of the 7% evaporation loss in reservoirs could be retained by local sewer facilities raising water hyacinths (water lilies) to be placed in reservoirs. The plants clean the water and air, provide shade reducing the 7% evaporation until they die off seasonally.

Do-able, cheap, beneficial.

Richard Reinders

One thing we need to do is clean all the Bosque's of Russian olive , Elms, Salt Cedar, willows and other invasive species and we would gain thousands of acre feet of water back, the rivers and ditches are over run with these trees. That is where we could put infrastructure money in New Mexico to regain lost water.

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