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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A recent study of the Southwest found that since 2000, the average soil moisture deficit was twice as severe as the deficit in any 20th-century drought, thereby surpassing the driest periods of all the most severe mega-droughts in the past 1,200 years.

According to the new study published in Nature Climate Change, after analyzing tree ring patterns in the southwest, scientists found the current megadrought has exceeded the severity of one experienced in the late 1500s and is the driest since the year AD 800. The ring patterns info was cross-checked with historical climate data to provide insights about soil moisture levels over a long duration.

“It’s extremely unlikely that this drought can be ended in one wet year,” said Park Williams, author of the study and a geographer at the University of California Los Angeles. According to his study, human-caused climate change is responsible for about 42 percent of soil moisture deficit since 2000.

U.S. Representative Melanie Stansbury (D-NM 1st District), a longtime water policy expert and member of the House Committees on Natural Resources and Science, Space and Technology, weighed in on the state’s current drought. “The science is clear and confirms what New Mexico’s communities have been experiencing for decades—climate change is here, and our water systems are ground zero,” she said. “In New Mexico, our communities are already experiencing prolonged drought, changes in snowpack and hydrology, extreme weather events, and catastrophic fires.”

Rep. Stansbury is the lead sponsor of the WaterSMART Access for Tribes Act and during her time serving as a New Mexico state legislator she introduced and passed the New Mexico Water Data Act, thereby creating a national framework for leveraging the power of data to transform water management.

“We must tackle the climate crisis now and support our communities as they are facing these changes on the ground, while investing in building a more sustainable and climate resilient future,” Rep. Stansbury said. “Congress must pass the historic climate investments in the Build Back Better Act.” 

She’s now advocating for a national Water Data Act that will allow for management of water systems in real time while planning for resilience as the state faces a drier future.

Author Williams advocated that long-term water conservation efforts be expanded beyond periods of acute drought. He explained that it will take multiple wet years to remediate the effects of high temperatures and low precipitation levels from summer 2020 through summer 2021 that exacerbated drought conditions in the Southwest.

As the new State Engineer, longtime New Mexico water official Mike Hamman will chair the New Mexico Governor’s Drought Task Force. “New Mexico has reached a threshold where we must inform and educate our residents on drought conditions and the impact posed to the environment, our economy, and our health,” states the Task Force Monitoring Working Group webpage. Their January 2022  report offers stats, graphics and information to better inform state residents what they are facing with the current drought.