Less rain. Rising temperatures. Climate change forces New Mexico to plan for water scarcity

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus
Native grass hangs over the banks of the Black River, providing habitats for many native organisms, March 13, 2018 in southern Eddy County.

More than half of New Mexico was experiencing some form of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, even amid early spring rainfall reported throughout the state.

New Mexico water managers expected the long-term arid conditions to last at least another 50 years, inciting calls for officials to increase planning efforts and funding for water projects throughout the state.

Officials hoped to improve the state’s infrastructure and resiliency in the wake of the 2023 Legislative Session where several water-related bills were passed, aiming to address increased water scarcity.

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Acting Director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) Hannah Riseley-White said during a Tuesday meeting that statewide water planning was initiated through passage of Senate Bill 337.

SB 337, known as the Water Security Planning Act, passed the legislature unanimously and was signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on April 4.

It called on the Interstate Stream Commission to initiate a rulemaking for statewide water planning, focusing on regional projects across the state with a state water plan due this year, and subsequent progress reports due annually to the legislature.

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Acting Director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission Hannah Riseley-White speaks during a meeting of the Carlsbad Irrigation District, March 11, 2020 in Carlsbad.

“We are facing significant challenges across the state related to scarcity brought on by climate change,” Riseley-White said. “We either bury our heads in the sand and run into problems or we get together right now and prepare for these challenges.”

Those challenges were driven by increasing heat and aridity in New Mexico, officials predicted.

New Mexico was likely to see an average temperature increase of 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 50 years, according to a March 2022 report developed by the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, commissioned by the State to inform future water needs and planning.

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At the same time, rainfall was not predicted to increase consistently, the report read, while snowpack and associated runoff were expected to decline by 2070, weakening stream flows.

Higher temperatures will increase evaporation along rivers and streams, reducing New Mexico’s available surface water, the report read.

“The impact of climate change on New Mexico’s resources are, unfortunately, overwhelmingly negative,” the report read. “The coupled trends of increasing temperature with no clear increasing trend in precipitation leads to a confident projection of increasingly arid conditions, including decreased soil moisture, stressed vegetation, and more severe droughts.”

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While SB 337 included language to begin to address these worsening conditions, Riseley-White said, more funding was needed from subsequent lawmaking sessions to see the program through.

“This really transformed our regional water planning in New Mexico. A lot of folks worked to advocate for its passage,” Riseley-White said of SB 337. “It kicks off a very important process over the next couple of years and is intended to build resilience.

“The next couple years are going to be really critical for water planning in New Mexico into the future.”

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The plan will respect existing water rights, Riseley-White explained in response to concerns, she said that the planning process could impede ongoing development and use.

It will also entail input from indigenous communities through a Tribal Advisory Council, she said, along with public stakeholder meetings throughout the process.

“Our hope is this effort will result in more consistent engagement with the regions at the state level, including building local capacity,” Riseley-White said. “It’s truly hard to craft viable solutions without folks on the ground.”

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Looking ahead, she said the Commission and its supporters must lobby lawmakers for continual funding in upcoming session to implement projects created by the planning process and ensure the process remains viable.

“We did get additional funding in this session, and its sufficient to stand up these rulemakings, but it’s not sufficient for the long-term purpose this bill is intended for,” Riseley-White said. “This isn’t going to be cheap, but the alternative of lack of planning certainly has more significant fiscal implications.”

Other bills she pointed to were Senate Bill 58, which altered membership of the Interstate Stream Commission to include a greater diversity both cultural and geographical, Riseley-White said, included upping indigenous members required from one to two seats on the Commission.

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And Senate Bill 176 was passed to add state dollars to the Acequia Community Ditch Infrastructure Fund in support of disaster relief, while removing local cost share requirements.

Senate Bill 329 was proposed to provide funding to educate lawmakers on local issues. It did not pass, but a total of $325,000 in state funds was passed for the program via the legislature’s budget bills.

“My observation is there is a lot of support for water issues in the legislature and a lot of hunger to learn more about what is needed in terms of water planning in New Mexico,” Riseley-White said. “There’s a lot of work for us at ISC and a lot of work for all of us across the state.

“We need to figure out how to get the public and our legislators to understand the risk that we’re facing.”

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Norm Gaume, president of the Middle Rio Grande Water Advocates, a New Mexico-based nonprofit focused on water issues throughout the state, said New Mexico is facing increasing water scarcity necessitating policy action and funding.

“We have to deal with hydrologic reality as difficult as that might. We have to face our water future, rather than ignore that our water demands exceed the average supply,” he said during the meeting. “We must protect water supplies for future generations. We must adapt to increase resiliency.”

Gaume argued several measures that would have supported water planning and infrastructure, mostly funding requests, were either killed or limited during the 2023 session.

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He estimated the ISC needed 20 new positions to contend with shifting water issues in the coming years, while Lujan Grisham requested 11 in her budget proposal and the legislature ultimately funded just nine.

The governor also requested $6 million for water planning efforts, but lawmakers appropriated $250,000 in recurring funds and $500,000 in one-time funds.

A bill that would give the Office of the State Engineer authority to enforce state water law, targeting illegal uses, was blocked by lawmakers, Gaume said, but would be pushed next year by the office and its supporters.

He said the State must also find funds to increase monitoring of water levels throughout New Mexico, an essential data component of any future planning.

“We need to transition to sustainable groundwater use. Part of how that gets started is to very substantially increase New Mexico’s measurement and monitoring across the state,” Gaume said.

“It’s going to be essential that the regions balance their water budgets. It’s going to take great conservation.”

Adrian Heddencan be reached at 575-628-5516,achedden@currentargus.com or@AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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