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As drought becomes normal, what happens next?

October 1, 2018

One of the biggest unfolding stories in New Mexico is happening before our eyes, undeniable as we are out and about. The state’s rivers are hurting as New Mexico remains in the grip of drought.

The Rio Grande, that great river stretching the length of New Mexico, almost stopped flowing from Colorado into New Mexico last summer. Lack of snowpack from last winter kept flows to the river at a minimum, with the gauge at Embudo measuring some of the lowest flows since it was established in the 1880s. Snowmelt water was so scarce in the Albuquerque area that places where the river usually flowed turned into dry beds.

Along the upper Pecos River, fish started dying off recently. The Department of Game and Fish attributed the deaths to stress caused by low-water conditions as well as the poor quality of water through late summer and early fall. Even though the water still flows, it’s not enough for the trout to thrive.

All of this, because of drought conditions across the state. Even with summer rains — finally — falling, the moisture failed to compensate for the dry winter. The rivers remain low, while lakes where water is stored for later release are nearly dry. In Northern New Mexico, where farmers get by with water from acequias, irrigating was a challenge this summer.

There is hope in the short-term, with forecasters predicting a 70 percent chance of El Niño conditions developing this fall and wetter-than-normal weather expected in the Southwestern United States in November. However, a prediction is not a guarantee. Still, a solid snowpack could go a long way to alleviating dry conditions — at least for now.

Because, as is evident, these drier years are becoming more commonplace. Even during wet years, runoff is not what it was. This is true not just for New Mexico, but across the West, with various regions struggling to get their share of the water necessary for life. Texas and New Mexico remain engaged in a court battle over Rio Grande water; its eventual settlement, in the Supreme Court, likely will leave us in a water bind and exacerbate already fraught conditions.

Many are calling for a new approach to dealing with drought. The first step, it seems, is recognizing that our climate is changing and so must we. Scientists with the Colorado River Research Group make a persuasive argument for this new approach. Instead of drought, the new term would be “aridification,” describing the transition to a less water-rich environment. It recognizes that higher temperatures and likely, less precipitation, are the new normal. Even if precipitation did not decline, warmer temperatures would dry up what does fall more quickly.

The Colorado scientists say what is happening in New Mexico and much of the West is not temporary. Snowmelt and runoff will take place earlier in the year. More precipitation will fall as rain, not snow. Higher temperatures will cause water to evaporate more quickly.

Life will have to adjust. The question then, for all of us who live in the West, is whether those adjustments will be strategic or sudden. Hard choices are coming, and New Mexico will need leaders — in politics, agriculture, business and science — to be ready to navigate these drier times. For now, pray for a wet winter, with plenty of snow piled high in our mountains — and come spring, a runoff that fills streams and rivers, just as they were back in the good old days. Because soon, very soon, those days will be gone forever.

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