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Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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Water Is Life’s Blood in NM, and It’s Getting Drier by the Minute

Heads up everyone: New Mexico is running out of water. The code red water indicators are flashing and we need to pay attention. Water stress—the comparison of supply and demand in the state—hasn’t gone away just because COVID-19 came knocking. New Mexico is a high mountain desert prone to drought; water has always been a fragile commodity in the state, and groundwater supplies have been dwindling for decades. According to U.S. News and Report,  the Southwest recorded its driest monsoon season on record this year, some areas with only a trace of rain or even no rain at all. Climate change has hit the state hard. 

New Mexico faces extreme water scarcity on par with the United Arab Emirates. “Day Zeros” are looming, according to an August 2019 report from the World Resources Institute. Industries and municipalities in New Mexico use about 95 percent of New Mexico’s available annual water supply, leaving little reserves for dry spells and droughts. New Mexico is the fifth driest state in the United States, receiving on average less than 10 inches of rain annually.

This week, October 26 through 29, at the 65th Annual New Mexico Water Conference at New Mexico State University, hundreds of participants representing New Mexico faculty and students, water agency staff, water planners and stakeholders from throughout New Mexico will discuss and explore meeting New Mexico’s pressing water needs. The challenges, the successes and the opportunities will all be examined in a virtual Zoom webinar. It’s free to register for the conference. Among the topics on the table for discussion are: the future of water in New Mexico, the constraints and opportunities to water supply in southeastern New Mexico, evolving water quality standards impact on the state, exploring lessons and opportunities through the experience of the Navajo Nation’s water access in times of a pandemic.

New Mexico’s largest rivers are not hers to claim. The Canadian and the San Juan Rivers are shared with states to the north, east and west. The Rio Grande is shared with both Colorado and the Republic of Mexico. The Gila River runs from New Mexico to Arizona, and the Pecos River flows into Texas. Any decisions made by New Mexico concerning its water have to accommodate the claims of competing challengers. Human beings can only survive about 10 days without water. Drought makes the situation worse. For hundreds of years, concessions, accommodations and adjustments have been needed to produce water policy to fit the land and its many varied cultures.

The Rio Grande Compact signed by Colorado, New Mexico and Texas in March 1938 committed all three states to equal division of the Rio Grande’s water supplies above a point in Fort Quitman, Texas. A lack of regulation regarding water apportionment between the states developed into the El Paso-New Mexico ongoing water conflict. El Paso faces an urban water shortage due to its limited groundwater and rapid population growth. Groundwater from New Mexico is their cheapest option. Drought has a way of focusing on this sunbelt water war, and there is a huge sucking sound when El Paso sticks a straw into the Rio Grande.

Texas, with the United States federal government piggy backing on its coattails, sued New Mexico over water disputes and water apportionment in the Elephant Butte Reservoir, a key holding “tank” for water in New Mexico. The Rio Grande Project case was argued before the Supreme Court, and the Court ruled that the federal government did have the right to intervene and join Texas as a plaintiff against New Mexico in a unanimous opinion decided on March 5, 2018. The ruling said the federal government has the right to join suits in matters related to interstate compacts that are directly related to the operations and obligations of the federal government. The fact that the federal government joined an existing complaint filed by the State of Texas, one of the parties to the Rio Grande Compact, and that Texas had not objected to the federal government’s intervention supported their decision.

The Supreme Court justices did not rule on whether the federal government has the right to initiate a suit regarding adherence to interstate compact law. The Court also did not rule on New Mexico’s compliance with the Rio Grande Compact during this case; the issue remains uncertain until the Court chooses to address the question in a future case. 

Albuquerque’s water comes from two main sources: groundwater and river water. Albuquerque initially got its water from the city’s aquifer; but as it was depleting faster than it was being replenished, the city now gets its drinking water largely from the Rio Grande and the Colorado River Basin.

Pretending that New Mexico’s water stress will just resolve itself isn’t an answer. Nor is saying there is no answer, an answer. It must start with hard-core conservation. There are several things New Mexicans can do to conserve thousands of gallons of water daily: Check your toilet, faucets and pipes for leaks; take shorter showers; install water-saving shower heads; turn off the water while brushing your teeth; only use your dishwasher for full loads; deep-soak your lawn during the cool parts of the day; don’t water the gutter; plant drought-resistant trees and plants; use a broom to clean driveways, sidewalks and steps; don’t run the hose while washing your car. This is a state-wide issue, and on a much larger scale a southwest issue. We all must be part of the solution.

New Mexico Water Resources 65 Annual  New Mexico Water Conference
October 26-29, 2020
Meeting New Mexico’s Pressing Water Needs: Challenges, Successes, and Opportunities Free All Virtual Zoom Webinar
Register

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