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Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

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New Mexico just made it through its driest and hottest decade on record and the warming trend is expected to continue. According to the latest report released by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), New Mexico is the sixth-fastest-warming state in the U.S. The report, released every 10 years, monitors Climate Normals, which help the public, weather forecasters and businesses a standard way to compare today’s weather conditions to 30-year averages.

In New Mexico, temperatures have increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970. Warming temperatures have also placed pressure on the region’s minimal water resources, with snowpacks and rain levels anticipated to decrease. According to Water Data For Texas, Elephant Butte Lake, a gauge for snowmelt and irrigation in the southwest region, is only at 11 percent of normal for this time of year. Elephant Butte is expected to drop as low as 3 percent of its holding capacity this summer, as the state seeks to fulfill its water obligation to Texas.

Farmers are feeling the strain of a significant and prolonged drought that has gripped the region. Irrigation season was forced to be pushed back by a month this year. The season was originally scheduled for March, but water didn’t start flowing in the acequias until April. Despite the Rio Grande Headwaters reporting 110 percent of its median snowpack levels, with increases in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Santa Fe, the compounded stress of years of extreme drought and heat has essentially nulled that moisture. Water-starved soils immediately soak up any precipitation that falls in the winter, which leaves little snowmelt and runoff for the spring. 

With little or no water from the Rio Grande during summer, many farmers have turned to groundwater to sustain their crops. The costs can be exponential and smaller-scale farmers are often unable to afford the extra cost. For those that are able to afford this method, they understand it’s only a temporary solution, as it quickly drains the groundwater level. The Albuquerque Journal reported in January that the state had issued grants to 20 farms south of Elephant Butte to stop using groundwater to irrigate. John Longworth, an engineer with Interstate Stream Commission, told the Journal that the focus of the project is to model a reduction in groundwater pumping to local water levels. 

New Mexico isn’t the only state feeling the effects of the drought. The American Southwest is in the throes of a megadrought, which is a period of extreme aridity and heat that spans decades. The La Niña weather system has dramatically decreased precipitation in the region and has placed significant strain on traditional water management in the area that was established in the mid-twentieth century when the region was wetter and did not have to support the massive influx in its population. Even a wet year—like the southwest region experienced in 2019—is nowhere near enough to offset years of little precipitation. Scientists refer to this dry period—extending back to 2000—as “bad as or worse than long-lasting droughts in the region over the past 1,200 years, and climate change has helped make it that way.”

The severity of the drought and the accompanying extreme temperatures also had negative implications for the state’s ecology, most notably the severity of wildfire season. New Mexico’s meager snowpacks the last few years have left the state’s forests extremely vulnerable to wildfires and at an earlier time in the year. Wildfire season usually lasts about five months, but with higher temperatures and little snow, this period is expected to last six or seven months. 

Climate researchers are bracing for another severe year of drought and wildfires in New Mexico. Strained water supplies are expected to exacerbate these inevitable challenges. As of May 5, the entire state is experiencing some form of drought, with more than half the state experiencing extreme drought.

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