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.

The average person can live without water for three days. We are smack in the middle of “An Unprecedented Water Crisis in New Mexico” according to speakers at the 28th Annual New Mexico Water Dialogue, and now is the time to act. Later doesn’t cut it for the sacred waters that give life to the people, wildlife and plants of a high-mountain desert state faced with a 15-year-and-counting drought, climate change, pollution and business and population growth.

Climate change is here. This trend can have year-round impacts, according to Climate Central. From 1970 to 2021, the longest winter cold snaps shrunk for 97 percent of the 244 U.S. locations analyzed. The analysis found cold snaps shrunk by 6 days on average across 244 stations since 1970. We can expect warmer winters and shorter cold spells as a consequence. Higher heat also affects rainwater by increasing the evaporation of the drops on the surface of New Mexico’s dry adobe earth.

The 50-year water plan for the Land of Enchantment was on the table at the Water Dialogue last week.

Aaron Chophouse, president of the Water Dialogue’s board, opened the meeting and explained “A Time to Act” was a call to action for all who are vested in New Mexico’s future. The Water Dialogue meetings were founded on the principle that all voices deserve to be heard.

“We need your ideas right now more than ever. It’s up to all of us to figure out how to adapt to the climate changes we’re now facing,” Chophouse told attendees.

Keynote speaker Mike Hamman was recently appointed as Senior Water Advisor to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (MLG). Hamman brings 40 years of water resource development experience primarily in the Middle Rio Grande area but throughout the state. He is also a member of the Interstate Stream Commission.

In a nutshell, Hamman is working on behalf of MLG to implement a statewide policy and infrastructure process in collaboration and partnership with department heads of agencies within the state government that have anything to do with water and natural resources. He will also have a coordinating role with the federal agencies that are providing infrastructure funding for an assessment of the state’s needs.

“The Water Dialogue sets a tone for the coming year and the legislation session at hand,” Hamman told attendees of the Water Dialogue. He indicated he would be very engaged in that process working with the legislature and mediating the process of various bills related to water resources development.  

The persistent drought over the last 15 years has caused water shortage problems throughout the state. Historically NM communities were set up to share water shortages and used community as a guiding principle for how municipalities can work together to manage water. “New Mexico has been adapting to conditions on the ground for over 150 years or so based on different conditions. The 20th century was the biggest adaptation process that we’ve been through,” Hamman said.

He also said that we are now headed into a potential contract violation of the 200,000 acre-foot water payment New Mexico owes Texas, part of the Rio Grande Compact. Hamman anticipates 2022 being a below-normal year for water.

“The Jetstream shifts up and down the coast and New Mexico could magically get some snow later in the season. So we’re still hoping for more. But hope is not a plan and so we have to plan accordingly if that does not transpire,” Hamman said.

According to him, we have some unique opportunities for a “once in a generation” pot of available federal dollars. “The state income stream doesn’t look too bad either right at the moment, due to the uptick in oil and gas revenues and other resources that the state has received.”

“We want to support the farm community and support the transition that they’re going to have to be going through with persistent drought factors,” he said. Hamman spoke about what he called “dynamic fallowing,” using funds for voluntary and temporary fallowing in various locations across the state. If New Mexico could get voluntary participation in the program, it might be able to catch up and optimize its delivery downstream to Texas.

“We’ve got to address infrastructure needs with all the funding that’s coming in,” Hamman said. “We’re trying to ramp up in terms of staffing, reaching out for other opportunities for the private sector to help. The governor has really recognized that in her budget, in terms of adding new support for staffing and programmatic funding.”

MLG has authorized Hamman to set up a water policy and infrastructure task force. “We’re working to complete the 50-year water plan and we’re going to set recommendations and infrastructure priorities,” he said.

The new funds that are coming in also have a strong focus on equity for underserved communities, Hamman said. “We’re the poster child in New Mexico for underserved communities. We have to streamline our state-funding mechanisms. We’ve got lots of different procedures and processes that have bureaucratic red tape that alter their ability to get projects for water out of the ground.”

The preservation of ecosystems and traditional communities are a huge importance to the governor, Hamman explained, “We can’t ignore the high ecological values that Mexico has. We also need to support our traditional communities to allow for those cultural and traditional practices to continue.

“This is an ‘all hands on deck’ moment for us, ” Hamman told the Water Dialogue attendees. “Shame on us if we don’t fully capitalize on these opportunities and make the best of it.”