This Is Not a Drought

Photo Credit: mtungate via CCSearch cc

Photo Credit: mtungate via CCSearch cc

By Jerry Ortiz y Pino

— The interim legislative Water and Natural Resources Committee met in Santa Fe and heard updates on New Mexico’s water situation so sobering that the usual back-slapping and good-natured ribbing with which most such gatherings conclude were noticeably muted.

The litany of symptoms of our current plight wasn’t what left most participants shaken last week. Rather, it was a reminder from the leader of a newly formed drought subcommittee that a growing number of scientists suggest New Mexico’s lack of rain does not necessarily mean we are in a drought—a temporary moisture shortfall that eventually corrects itself.

Researchers point to evidence from the past thousand years that absence of rainfall is the norm. The past 50 years were the true aberration. In short, we may not see more rain for a very long time.

Since we’ve only been receiving 6 to 10 inches annually during this abnormally wet recent era, we should take steps immediately to deal with the implications of a prolonged period of 1 to 3 inches of rainfall per year.

All our water policy and planning is premised on that 6 to 10 inches figure. It forms the basis of multiple compact obligations to neighboring states, agreements with the federal government and promises to in-state industry, tribal governments, urban communities, farmers and ranchers. If that level of rain doesn’t materialize, our margin of error is slim; we suffer serious cutbacks. And if we don’t get moisture for two or more years in succession (like now), we deplete reserves and rapidly face catastrophe.

There are many signs of the disaster our current policy plus two years of lower rainfall have produced in 2013:

Ranchers throughout the state have on average reduced the size of their herds by two-thirds, and many have sold off all their animals under duress.

Farmers who have been promised three acre feet of irrigation water will have to get by this year with three inches. This means many crops will fail, and others will have lower yield.

There will be little to no pecan crop this year in the Mesilla Valley. The lack of irrigation water has forced orchardists to prune their trees back to the main trunk in an effort to save them.

Four lakes in this state have severely limited access. (The water level is so far below the boat ramps that they pose a genuine public safety hazard if anyone attempts a launch.) Elephant Butte, our iconic recreational reservoir, faces water levels lower than the year the dam was built over a century ago.

Farmers in the Carlsbad Irrigation District are locked in conflict with other farmers upstream—not because of river flow overuse (there is no river flow), but because pumping wells north of the district has lowered the aquifer and drastically affected availability of water for Carlsbad irrigators.

A similar issue has prompted a formal lawsuit against our state by Texas. It contends farmers in the Mesilla Valley, who turned to well water as compensation for the lack of ditch water, are negatively impacting El Paso-area agriculture. If we lose that court case, the State of New Mexico could be compelled to pay damages as high as a billion dollars.

Tinder-dry conditions in our mountains and forests have closed most of them to visitors. The air is heavy with smoke and ash from numerous blazes already destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of vegetation.

Albuquerque has seen 20 percent of its urban trees, its life-giving canopy, lost to lack of rainfall and restrictions on water use required over the last two years.

And wildlife, desperate for food and water, will increasingly be forced to confront people in our foothill and suburban developments—with a resultant loss of life and limb for animals and occasionally people.

All this is the product of two years of reduced rainfall. What if experts are correct and it’s decades before we achieve the 6- to 10-inch levels again? How do we adjust to that frightening reality? How will Albuquerque, which is dependent on San Juan-Chama water rights purchased years ago, deal with a scenario in which the San Juan River Basin runs dry?

Photos of bone-dry Heron Lake and El Vado Reservoir circulated at the committee meeting were not comforting, to say the least. Water rights are only enforceable if there is water to own. A couple more years of thin Colorado snowpack like the last two will make our city’s vaunted rights theoretical at best.

It’s clear that if we’re to avoid the fate of earlier civilizations in this area that disappeared when rivers and springs dried up, we have to change our thinking and our policies. We need revamped agriculture. Is New Mexico really an ideal place for cotton cultivation or dairies—both among our biggest agricultural crops, but both water-intensive? Perhaps if we receive 6 to10 inches of rain a year. But what if we live in a new era of 1 to 3 inches?

We need to ask other hard questions. Is it wise to rely on unproven technology to bail us out? Does desalinization of brackish water from deep aquifers offer anything more than a temporary fix? Can we build a pipeline from the Mississippi Valley to move millions of acre feet uphill—and does that make economic, environmental or social sense? Would systems for water recycling and reuse change the situation enough to justify the capital investments required? Is cloud seeding anything more than a pipe dream?

Perhaps most crucially, can a New Mexico with 1 to 3 inches of annual rainfall for the foreseeable future sustain even its current population—let alone a growing one?

Water, our most precious natural resource, must be kept high on the agenda of our state policy-makers. Further, we ought to demand answers from the candidates in next year’s state elections. Anyone who aspires to be governor for the next four years will face no bigger challenge New Mexico’s water policy problems. Those alone may be the key to making a choice among the candidates.

We haven’t seen leadership on this front from Gov. Susana Martinez so far. Has she finally decided on a direction she wants to take us? Do any of her challengers have more than platitudes to offer? If we don’t demand answers—if we are too unrealistic or too politically paralyzed to act decisively—the inexorable processes of nature will continue, and we will simply resign ourselves to becoming their victims.

The Anasazi left us important advice: Pray for rain, of course. But as a people, act as if the answer to those prayers won’t arrive for a hundred years.

  • Bird Thompson

    good article but I’m disappointed you didn’t mention climate change: this “drought” may last a millenium

    • Homegrown Smoker Natural Barbecue 100% Vegan

      Yeah. They also made no mention of fracking for Natural Gas which uses tons of water and contaminates any ground water forever. One county in NM has made it illegal. Why not the whole state? Journalists, politicians and big gas all in the same bed together?

  • Arthur A

    Guys, I think there’s a word missing after “may” in this sentence: “In short, we may see more rain for a very long time.” The word is “not.”
    Arthur Alpert

    • nmcompass

      Yes, good eye. I saw that too, and fixed it as soon as I could. (Sigh.) — MW

  • nonlabel

    I like the giant pipe from the Mississippi. After all, water from the Mora River eventually winds up there. Lets pump it back, and then some.

  • John Konopak

    Jerry asks: ” Has she (O, Susana) finally decided on a direction she wants to take us?”
    He knows better.
    Don’t ask the carpetbagger/teabagger! Ask ALEC and Rove and the Kochs, from whom she takes her orders.

  • Paul Eichhorn

    Ranchers. Farmers. We live in a desert. If our water tables are poisoned by fracking for natural gas, we got nothing. No Farms. No Ranches. No cities.
    Hydrofracked shale wells play out quickly. In a few years they’ll be gone and we’ll be left with nothing.
    Don’t have fracking in your area? We are under contract to Texas to deliver so many acre feet a year to Texas through the Rio Grande. If they poison their water in other parts of the state, they will come and get yours.

  • Bob Law

    The desert should be deserted, not manipulated into an unsustainable vegas-like falsehood.

  • Melinda Silver

    Thank you, Jerry, for a very well-written summary of the challenges we face. The sooner we change policies and realize that this is a long-term problem, the more likely the state will be able to find some means of living with a very diminished water supply.

  • Max Yeh

    It’s not just mother nature. It is the ridiculous water rules we created, too, that makes rights holders use the water to the maximum just to keep their rights. Sign the petition to Martinez and force a change;

    • Raymond L. Madson

      The point is: “where do we go from here?” We know the problem. Where is the integrated, comprehensive, cooperative and effective water policy. Where is the leadearship from Susana Martinez and everyone in her administraton? At least Mary Kay Papen, Joseph Cervantes, Peter Wirth, et al, are addressing the problem. Where is Governor Martinez? Raising campaign funds.

    • NaVida Johnson

      I guess I am a little confused. Are you petitioning for Susana to take action against overuse or to change water allocations? I hope you are aware that it is federal law that we have a delivery obligation to Texas. If you need more info I really encourage you to first read “Water Policy in New Mexico-Addressing the challenge of an uncertain future” 2012. RFF Press. Hope that helps your mission. The more we are informed with the facts, the better plans and decisions we can make to serve our region as a whole. Good Luck.

    • Las Cruces

      The statement “There will be little to no pecan crop this year in the Mesilla Valley.” is unfortunately not true in the least. Take a drive through the orchards and watch huge diesel-driven engines pump crystal clear aquifer water through 10+ inch diameter pipes to flood the trees on a frequent schedule. Dont worry about Stahmanns and Salopecks and the like- they’ll get the water they need to make their money, aquifer be damned.

  • Kim Sorvig

    Thank you for this excellent summary. We probably also need to do what-if planning with the concept that there could be a mass exodus of people who are not committed to staying in NM, but are here for jobs or some other ‘portable’ reason.
    The comment on fracking is extremely important. If we cannot find water for people to live, what sense does it make to expend that resource to further degrade land, water, and atmosphere to obtain a substance that contirbutes directly to climate change and desertification? And our water compacts make it likely that Texans will be using the water they wring from NM for fracking there.
    Do we envision New Mexico as the next Sahara, as looking like parts of Nevada and Arizona? Are we willing and able to live like Bedouins?

  • laura

    and why is no one asking about geoengineering and its affects on the weather? Why is the state not suing the military/federal government for years and years of chemtrails? Our climate world wide has been drastically affected…

    • http://facebook nelson overstreet

      I’m thinking it’s the chemtrails

  • aspidoscelis

    “Researchers point to evidence from the past thousand years that absence of rainfall is the norm. The past 50 years were the true aberration. In short, we may not see more rain for a very long time.”

    Could you be more specific? I’d be interested in knowing more about what the evidence is.

    From my limited knowledge of the situation, I’m skeptical. If there were a historical average of 1-3 inches of rain at low elevations in the state followed by a shift to current conditions around 50 years ago, I would expect there to be a very strong and obvious signal in our direct evidence from historical records and indirect evidence from sources like packrat midden analysis. We have a pretty good record of vegetation going back to the last glacial maximum (ca. 20,000 years ago)-certainly, a good enough record to record this kind of dramatic variation-and so far as I know there is no record of 1-3 inches of rain ever having been typical during that period. As an example, the Jornada Experimental Range is reported to have had large expanses of grassland ca. 1858. That kind of vegetation simply does not occur with 1-3 inches of rain.

    For reference-1-3 inches is the kind of severe aridity reported in Death Valley (a couple of NOAA weather stations in the valley report averages of 2.0 and 2.2 inches). Average precipitation reported for several of the locations mentioned in this article are as follows:

    Albuquerque International Airport: 8.65″
    Carlsbad: 12.84″
    Elephant Butte Dam: 9.48″
    El Vado Dam: 14.49″
    NMSU (in the Mesilla Valley): 9.28″

    The gist being, we are talking about a pretty stark difference here. A transition from 1-3 inches of rain historically to current rainfall averages in the last 50 years would imply that precipitation increased by 250-1400% in these areas. And that somehow, we didn’t notice. This is difficult to believe… but, then, I don’t know what evidence is brought to bear in support of this kind of transition having occurred.

    • jon bower

      Base your “average” on dendrochronological (tree ring dating) evidence and I believe the author’s unsettling premise is, at best, accurate, and, at the extreme, optimistically understated.

  • R. Bartholomew

    We expect weather and we get climate. Clearly, the world is in a state of climate change. Using the historical climate records is not likely to be our crystal ball to the future. New Mexico is an arid climate. When has anyone complained of excess sustained precipitation. Yes, there are heavy snowstorms and a few downpours that exceed runoff and percolation. Climatologists have identified Pacific ocean currents, ie El Nino and La Nina to the storm track. We are experiencing a prolonged neutral/El Nino period. El Niño is defined by prolonged differences in the Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures when compared with the average value. Typically, this anomaly happens at irregular intervals of two to seven years, and lasts nine months to two years. We do have some time here. More sobering to me is to reflect on the extended Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. Also, consider that the Midwest and parts of the east have recorded 100 year records for rainfall and without political influence. Yes, there are more austere water conservation programs that will limit use and prohibit any residential and business expansion. There is not a governor in the continental US that legislating rain dances and not hoping/expecting the pendulum to reverse. Let us hope we do not experience 100 year record rain.

  • Jim Brown

    “I jumped into the river but the dog-gone river was dry.” These Hank Williams lyrics from the mid-20th century pretty much cover the situation. My wife and I sussed the situation 27 years ago and left the state. Our 2.5 acres in Santa Fe County, where we had once hoped to build a home for our retirement? Forget it.

  • MonaKarel

    At this time of water shortages, it seems irresponsible to plan large communities in areas with small aquifers

  • Maya Sees

    The principles of permaculture could be implemented throughout the state and in only a few years change the very climate of New Mexico. We would need to be organized and diligent. There are many successful projects you can look up on the Internet in desert areas around the world, such as Jordan, a country known for its severe lack of rainfall. Or areas that have been ravaged by modern agriculture and logging which are being greened again. I am only beginning to discover permaculture and it’s quite facinating.

  • aspidoscelis

    To those running the NM Compass website: Although obviously this is your forum and you can do with it as you like, I would like to respectfully suggest that removing content that is politely critical of your content is unhelpful. My earlier post said, in more depth, roughly the following:

    So far as I can tell, the statement that “we should take steps immediately to deal with the implications of a prolonged period of 1 to 3 inches of rainfall per year” describes a condition of extreme aridity that according to current evidence has not been typical of New Mexico in the past and is not plausible for the future. If there is compelling evidence to the contrary, I think it would be very helpful if this were made available, or at least referenced unambiguously, for myself and other readers to evaluate.

    • aspidoscelis

      Oh, now my earlier comment is back. I feel stupid. Not sure if I just got irritated by a website bug or what, but my apologies.

      • nmcompass

        Sorry it vanished, however temporarily. Definitely wasn’t our intention to cut you out of the conversation.

  • Viola Montoya

    I’m hearing many ideas about creating ways to get more water to the people, but nobody is making suggestions about people needing to change their relationship to water. We all need to use less water. It is still being taken for granted. I was just in Oregon where they have 80 inches of rainfall annually and they have low flush toilets everywhere. I arrive in Alb and the toilets flush automatically whether needed or not, sometimes flushing twice just while standing in the stall! It is ridiculous how we allow this kind of waste. WE need to change. Yes we need to fulfill our needs, but our needs have to be modified! Golf courses should also be outlawed.

  • herbgcohen

    The world is cringing from drought, floods, and catastrophic storms. We are just beginning to question the fact that this is the moment to place climate at the top of all the major issues world wide. Unimaginable sums of money will be spent to keep NYC and a thousand other coastal cities from drowning. Will drought areas be ignored or become the major driving force that will drive the economy? If the USA has any single good reason to remain “the world power” for the next hundred years, climate may be it. End war… solve climate issues. This needs to be a Koch fight.

  • George

    We need a water pipeline from Canada more than we need a Tar Sands Oil pipeline.
    This place is about to dry up and blow away like in the Dust Bowl years.
    All aquifers have their water levels almost depleted. This means that water use is unsustainable.
    Water allocation and pricing need to reflect the value of water. It is cheap to pump but it is extremely valuable when it is gone.
    Pumping water uphill is a fools choice. Water weighs a lot. We will need to build power plants to generate the energy to pump water uphill. Ditto for de-salinization.
    We already have too many people in NM (and the Southwest). Limits on building and population growth are needed to prevent turning our towns and cities into the equivalent of modern Anasazi ruins. New developments should be discouraged until we return to “normal” rainfall for a few years in order to recharge our aquifers, rivers and lakes.

  • missmarla

    The nation’s so-called “water infrastructure upgrade” – cities rebuilt on top of a secretly-replaced water system. Where is all the water being re-directed? I assume it is being channeled into the underground cities – how else would water be provided?

  • wolf krusemark

    Praying for rain every day!

  • JC Sandstrom

    Is ther any chance we can get the bibliography showing where the information in this article came from?

    • jerry1942

      I checked with Estevan Lopez of the Interstate Stream Commission. He directed me to the website CLIMAS and the keywords “tree flow”. That’s where the research into the connection between tree ring analyses and annual precipitation can be explored. Most of it is far too technical for me to handle, but Mr. Lopez agreed with the consensus of scientists that was distilled for us at the Water Committee meeting into the statement: We may not be in a drought at all; this may actually be “normal” precipitation for New Mexico.

  • Paquita

    You are the best, Mr.Ortiz y Pino! It should have been clear from the start that Ms. Martinez is a short sighted person and that she would be taking the state on a down spiral as far as this issue is concerned. Government matters at all levels but we need to be vigilant at all times, all levels and all issues. We are putting our lives in their hands and we need sane state, national and foreign policies. It takes a large vision, courage and determination on the part of our leaders but as citizens we must share that vision instead of everyone constantly competing for power and money whether to stay in office, to protect our egos or to avoid our responsibility to be an informed and educated citizenry. Education is not about training; it is about self knowledge and social consciousness.

  • Bobby

    A distinct political problem for a natural occurance.

  • Lobma Thundrup

    Has no one heard of the work of Allan Savory? For over 50 years, he has worked with farmers and scientists all over the world, and taught how to bring land back from deserts.

    See his 20 minute tale here:

    • Deborah Fox

      Aren’t any deserts natural? And what if we’re talking about New Mexico where we get only 2-7 inches of annual rainfall?

  • jc

    “A 1% reduction in world-wide meat intake has the same benefit as a three trillion-dollar investment in solar energy.” ~ Chris Mentzel, CEO of Clean Energy

    “As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” ~ Worldwatch Institute, “Is Meat Sustainable?”

    “If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains… the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. Roads.” ~ Environmental Defense Fund

    “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity… The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency.” ~ United Nation Food and Agricultural Organization’s report “Livestock’s Long Shadow”

    “It’s not a requirement to eat animals, we just choose to do it, so it becomes a moral choice and one that is having a huge impact on the planet, using up resources and destroying the biosphere.” ~ James Cameron, movie director, environmentalist, new vegan

    VeganVideo.Org TryVeg.Org

  • Joseph

    U.S. Air Force@ Kirtland AFB has spilled 24 million gallons of jet fuel into the Santa Fe formation an aquifer located 500 feet below Albuquerque and are moving painfully slowly on the cleanup. Reservoir evaporation statewide is a large ignored problem.

  • Zeb Westrom (@The_Zeb)

    I’d be interested to see the “research” that suggests the dry conditions are normal. According to everything I’ve found (which uses data from tree rings), New Mexico is in fact in a drought state (which it goes through fairly regularly and has historically lasted up to 100 years).

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  • Stephen Henry

    All the water involved nm bureaucrats and politicians of BOTH parties have been talking about the urgent need for statewide water planning for at least the last 25 years or so I’ve been paying attention. They have done nothing except yap about it and go to meetings and waste money. No product of any kind! So it is not right to pick on the present R administration when there have been several of both D and R in those years. Not a bad article until you did the normal blame throwing politicking, Jerry.