As warming strains #NM’s water supplies, ‘status quo’ no longer works — New Mexico Political Report #RioGrande

Historical storage Elephant Butte Reservoir as of September 26, 2018 via Water Data for Texas.

From the New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

The Rio Grande Compact, which divides water among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas was signed in 1938. And New Mexico’s water laws today are still based on codes that the territorial legislature passed in 1907.

But as the climate changes and warmer temperatures affect the state’s rivers, reservoirs and aquifers, the same tactics and strategies that may have helped New Mexicans weather dry times over the past century won’t keep working. And perhaps no place in the state offers such a stark reminder of that fact than the reservoir behind this dam. After a dry winter and hardly any snowmelt this spring, Elephant Butte Reservoir is at three percent capacity, storing 58,906 acre feet of water as of September 24.

Historically, people tend to listen to what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear: What they need to hear is that our laws do not reflect hydrology and our hydrology is changing for the worse, and if we do not manage it, it will manage itself,” says Phil King, an expert on hydrology and the relationship between surface and ground water in southern New Mexico. “I would much rather correct the system ourselves through management than let nature do it’s cold, hard reality fix,” adds King, a professor of civil engineering at New Mexico State University and a consultant to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, or EBID.

Stopping the ‘death spiral’

EBID serves about 8,000 farmers in the Rincon and Mesilla valleys in southern New Mexico, from Arrey to the border town of Santa Teresa. If you’ve eaten chile from Hatch or pecans from Mesilla, fed alfalfa to your horses or poured milk from a New Mexico dairy into your coffee, you’ve consumed water that EBID’s farmers divert from the Rio Grande and Elephant Butte or pump from the aquifer.

For roughly a century, EBID farmers have supplemented irrigation water with groundwater. Without it, they would not have survived the drought of the 1950s. But they pumped during the wet years, too, including throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Then, beginning around 2003, about four years into the Southwest’s current drought period, pumping ramped up even more.

That’s a problem, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, where river water recharges the groundwater, and pumping water from the aquifer makes it even thirstier for river water.

With both the surface water and the groundwater strained, the system suffers a double-whammy, King says. That causes a positive feedback or what King calls a “death spiral.”

Even though scientists, engineers, hydrologists and farmers know the two are intertwined within the same system, in New Mexico, groundwater and surface water are managed separately. King calls that “hydrological folly.”

“We’ve got some major rethinking to do with New Mexico water law: Status quo is not an option,” he says. “I think what people need to understand is we are facing conditions that mankind has not faced here before.”

And the only way to reverse that death spiral is to use less water.

The drying riverbed of the Middle Rio Grande near the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on April 4, 2018. Photo credit: USBR

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