ALBUQUERQUE — In all but one corner of New Mexico, water managers are projecting shortages in drinking and irrigation supplies given expected demand and variability in rainfall over the next few decades.
Like many places in the West, the arid state is recuperating from an unprecedented drought that peaked in 2013. The sting has yet to go away as a month of record-setting temperatures and little rain have left dry conditions across the eastern plains and parts of southern New Mexico.
Managers in the state’s 16 water planning districts have spent the past three years crunching numbers and analyzing historic data to help create a collection of plans that identify supply gaps and possible solutions.
The final two plans were adopted recently by the Interstate Stream Commission, setting the stage for a much-needed overhaul of the statewide roadmap for navigating the uncertainties of drought.
State officials call the work done so far a monumental accomplishment, but it could be another year before the state plan is complete.
New Mexico’s chief water official, state engineer Tom Blaine, says revolutionary ideas are needed to ensure the demand can be balanced in the future.
“We are really working with a limited resource in the state, increased demands and variable water supplies from year to year,” Blaine said Thursday. “Those are the challenges that we really need to be looking at when we start developing what our statewide plan looks like.”
New Mexico developed its first water plan in 2003. The need to have more comprehensive and consistent information about the challenges in specific regions came to a head in 2013 as New Mexico approached 36 straight months of extreme drought conditions, making for the driest and hottest period in more than a century.
With the exception of the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico, all the current regional plans project water shortages based on existing rights, traditional uses, population estimates, economic trends and community development.
Along the Middle Rio Grande Valley, the state’s most populated area, managers warn that the supply from the river and groundwater pumping would meet only half the region’s demand in drought years.
Agriculture is the top user in the district, consuming about two-thirds of the region’s water. That’s no different in other areas of the predominantly rural state.
On the lower Rio Grande, data shows 87 percent of the water irrigates chile, onions, pecans and other crops.
Officials in southern New Mexico say they would like to maintain that region’s values — including agriculture and the viability of rural communities — as water shortages are addressed. They suggested better stormwater capture, desalination and improved efficiency among other options.
In southeastern New Mexico, managers say water from oil and natural gas production could be used to fill some of the gap.
Sam Fernald, director of the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute, said more integrated approaches are needed and that options like water banking, shortage sharing and desalination will have to be part of the conversation.
He said the link between groundwater and surface water will also be a consideration as cities and farmers rely more on pumping and as aquifers have less opportunity to recover.
“That’s a challenge around the whole West,” he said. “Groundwater is a great resource to get through dry periods, but we have to think about how long we let the water be used in excess of recharge rates until the next wet period. That’s a big question.”