Four years of dry weather now and the Southwest stands on the threshold of another year of drought crisis.
Hydrologists say without substantial rainfall, rivers and streams will dry up again this summer, water allocations will drop or stop altogether, most irrigation will cease and communities and industry will struggle again with providing enough water to meet the basic needs of homes and businesses across the state.
Leaders from local, state and federal agencies; representatives from industry, tribal governments and special interest groups; and engineers, hydrologists and concerned citizens gathered recently at an historic two-day "Town Hall" meeting in Albuquerque where water concerns dominated a meeting designed to better prepare New Mexico for the worsening crisis caused by failing water resources.
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With almost all New Mexico counties represented, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), New Mexico state engineer Scott Verhines, business and community and tribal leaders, and university and government researchers crowded into the gathering to focus on the very real challenges of water shortages and climate change expected to continue in the years ahead.
Heinrich called the gathering the first of many steps needed to help leaders of government, community and industry to rise to the challenges of climate change, including meeting the water requirements of New Mexico residents and businesses—strategic facilities, laboratories and research centers like Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia Labs and military facilities like White Sands Missile Range, and Holloman, Canon and Kirtland Air Force Bases.
Conditions getting worse
"We're seeing bigger fires...drier summers...severe floods when it finally rains, and declining snowpack in winter. And things are going to get worse," Heinrich told those assembled at the New Mexico First event.
The group is a public policy organization that engages people on important issues facing the state and local communities. Their mission includes staging unique town halls and forums designed to generate actionable recommendations for policymakers to discuss.
Heinrich says in spite of the challenges related to natural resources, state, community and federal officials must be prepared to secure jobs, support business and industry and to work through major challenges like climate change.
Officials agreed on the first day of the Town Hall forum that the goal of the two-day session was to develop a series of recommendations that would address planning for a water crisis, issues related to water rights, conservation and reuse of water resources, and measures to improve aging water infrastructure across the region.
Officials discussed how rains in late summer and early fall last year provided temporary relief from severe drought conditions that gripped nearly 70 percent of the state. And with a weak winter snowpack and the return of drier weather this spring, prospects for an abnormally dry summer once again will present challenges to every sector of government and industry.
A primary topic covered at the meeting was water sharing agreements and water restrictions, two policies put in place in recent drought years. While these temporary agreements provided some relief, officials generally agreed that better structured and more meaningful sharing agreements should be pursued throughout the state and a more coordinated effort towards administering and managing those sharing programs needs to be developed.
Another area discussed at the meeting was research into the potential for using New Mexico's deep underground brackish water as an alternative water source. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Deputy District Engineer John D'Antonio told those assembled that an early study indicated there may be 15 billion acre-feet of high-saline, brackish water beneath New Mexico that is available for mining.
Officials report a new study is currently underway to help determine the best locations for these underground sources and how treatment of such water could benefit industry and communities during periods of severe drought.
With optimism growing for an El Niño Pacific weather event (ENSO) to develop late this summer, officials say they remain hopeful healthy rains will come when they are needed the most. But with mounting evidence of a climate crisis underway and the long range forecast for more dry times ahead, the only reasonable public alternative is to prepare for the increasing threat of serious water shortages in the near future and to research potential solutions to help survive what could be the most difficult times ahead.