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In New Mexico, ‘praying for rain’ won’t be enough

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico’s supply of groundwater should be reserved for periods of drought, communities should have sharing agreements in place when supplies are short and alternatives such as desalination should be explored regardless of the cost.

The recommendations are part of the state’s draft water plan released late Monday by New Mexico’s top water managers.

Updated every five years, the plan acknowledges the growing pressures of dry conditions and climate change on New Mexico’s drinking and irrigation supplies. Like the rest of the American Southwest, New Mexico remains mired in severe to exceptional drought because of record-high temperatures and record-low precipitation in the winter and spring.

Stretches of the Rio Grande have gone dry, mountain pastures along the Arizona-New Mexico border are brown, and the aquifer that serves parts of New Mexico, Texas and several other states continues to drop.

“There’s no question we need a long-term strategy when it comes to water shortage, and it can’t be praying for rain,” said New Mexico Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat who has been working on water issues for years.

Not enough money has gone into water planning in recent years, and the plan has become more a reaction to the evolving conditions, Wirth said.

There are also legal pressures that could force the state to make changes, namely a lawsuit filed by the state of Texas over New Mexico’s management of the Rio Grande. That case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court and could end up costing the state millions of dollars.

“Status quo is not going to work, and the external factors are moving at such a pace that we can either sit back and suffer the consequences or be proactive and really try to drive this forward in a collaborative way,” Wirth said during an interview Tuesday.

The water plan covers the challenges of balancing supply and demand, the need for more data on how much water is being used, conservation and billions of dollars in infrastructure needs.

One of the projects highlighted in the plan is the Ute pipeline. Decades in the making, the pipeline aims to ease the strain on the Ogallala aquifer along the Texas-New Mexico state line by tapping into Ute Reservoir. Some critics say the cost will outweigh the benefits as the runoff that feeds the reservoir could be uncertain as drought persists.

Building new ways to divert water won’t solve New Mexico’s problems, said Jen Pelz with the environmental group WildEarth Guardians.

“The new draft state water plan is just business as usually for New Mexico,” she said. “Instead of working to live within our means and come up with strategies to use and manage water in a sustainable manner, the state continues its policy of trying to stretch supplies as far as possible with new infrastructure and denial.”

Despite short-term relief for some areas as the monsoon season kicks into gear, forecasters have said it will take more than a single robust rainy season to erase the water deficit that has built up.

About 30 miles of the Rio Grande below Isleta Pueblo and north of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge are now a sandy wash, prompting the rescue of endangered silvery minnow from the dry river.

In the Zuni Mountains near the Arizona-New Mexico border, pastures have been reduced to crisp tuffs of dormant grass and watering holes have evaporated, leaving behind only dry cattail stalks.

The dry conditions and threat of wildfire also forced the temporary closure of popular trails and camping spots in northern New Mexico in June.

Ranchers and farmers around the state have felt the pinch too, resulting in herd reductions and smaller irrigation allotments.

The lack of moisture for the first half of 2018 has been exacerbated by warm temperatures. Last month was about 5 degrees warmer than average, marking the second warmest June on record for New Mexico, forecasters say.

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