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

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Drought, diversion, contamination and legislative battles are the pandemic plaguing dwindling New Mexico rivers, livestock and wildlife. Water, the lifeblood of everything in its path as it flows, is close to going on life support, jeopardizing everything it flows through across the state. Our state has a long history of activism around anything water—the fight continues today with looming climate change. We now face a massive water shortage due to drought, limited groundwater, rapid population growth, evaporation, water debt to Texas and nasty legal fights for clean water supplies.

The semi-arid state’s water history is complex. With the added pressure of climate change, its future appears to be more of the same. The water supply is becoming increasingly more insecure across the state, particularly for those involved in agriculture, ranching and wildlife. Multiple projects to pipe water across the state have failed, including the Augustin Plains Ranch plan to pump 54,000 acre-feet of water each year from an aquifer below the Valley of San Augustin near Datil to Albuquerque. The permit was denied in late 2019, because the project would “deprive the public of its right to appropriate water for beneficial use.” The cheapest supply comes from the Rio Grande surface water or the state’s groundwater or seeking out water rights for sale.

¡El Agua es Vida! Means water is life. Water is sacred in New Mexico, and the people who live here and their ancestors have had many lessons in what it means to be without clean water. Indigenous and Latino communities have a tragic history with water rights. The acequias water system, which was built for agriculture and serves as the sacred springs in many of these communities, has been a part of their cultural identity and livelihoods for centuries. For many Indigenous people, water is central in their spirituality. And in Latino communities, water was a form of self-governance and democracy. One climate scientist has warned that, “The 21st-century projections make past megadroughts seem like quaint walks through the Garden of Eden.”

Across the state individuals and companies have been offering significant sums, buying off water rights from impoverished communities and farmers to fuel economic and population growth. As farmers’ fields are not yielding enough money from their crops, owners often have no other option than to sell their water rights and move away from their ancestral homes to the city to seek better opportunities. 

Maps generated by the National Drought Information System show one of the most parched sections of the country is the Zuni tribe’s main reservation, in the western part of New Mexico. In the last 15 years, they have already declared three drought emergencies. Private ranchers upstream and drought have sucked dry the Zuni River to a point that it no longer reaches the Pueblo of Zuni.

A court ruling stated that, although the pueblo has existing rights to the waterways it is currently using, it does not have the right to increase water diversion. The tribe has been limited to the frequency of water resource use that the pueblo had prior to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo—signed 171 years ago—regardless of population growth or the pueblo’s effort to revive traditional farming to further stimulate its economy.

Black Rock Dam, built on the Zuni reservation, was designed to hold 15,000 acre-feet of water—but a small, shallow pool from a recent rain is usually the only water in sight. The Zunis have developed exceptional agricultural methods designed to breed crops uniquely adapted to land perpetually threatened by drought. Their ancient seed stock includes corn with roots that grow down 20 feet with a short four-foot top full of blue corn. Only a handful of people in Zuni Pueblo are actually growing anything as the combination of drought, misguided federal policies and economic pressures have decimated Zuni farming.

In the southern part of the state, after five years and roughly $15 million dollars spent by the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (NM CAP) Entity, Governor Lujan Grisham defunded the Gila River Diversion Project in the summer of 2020. The project was trying to divert water yearly from the Gila River for landowners and other state water projects in southern New Mexico. Conservation organizations and the state felt the NM CAP Entity overseeing the project failed miserably.

NM CAP Entity’s efforts to reassert the permanence of its consulting role, overseeing a trust fund created under the Arizona Water Settlement Act, have gone up in smoke with the passing of House Bill 200—Water Trust Board Projects and N.M. Unit Fund on March 17 in the State Senate (Y:26 N:15).

The bill’s passing makes the New Mexico Water Trust Board, an advisory board under the New Mexico Finance Authority, the overseer of the remaining $80 million in the trust spending on water projects in the south. The bill also prohibits any of the remaining funds from the settlement being spent on efforts to divert any of the 14,000 acre-feet of surface water that was offered to New Mexico as part of the settlement.

When a drought occurs across the state, wildlife dependent on water see their food supply shrink and their habitats damaged. Wildlife feeding patterns change. And with reduced food and water supplies, there is often an increase in disease in wild animals. As pastures diminish livestock need supplemental feed and water. And as feed costs rise, producers begin selling herds—often at a loss. Bears encroach on developed areas, migratory birds change patterns. Farmers and ranchers face increased predation on livestock, and more crops are lost to deer, elk and other wild herbivores desperately seeking forage.

When drought threatens to destroy an equitable system that protects and represents all forms of life, the responsibility falls to the state. As this legislative session closed, many bills that would have protected the Land of Enchantment’s scarce water supply failed to get to or out of committee. As these rejected bills recycle back again, hopefully, it won’t be dry faucets that motivate legislators to pass them in the future.

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