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Report: NM water stress level extremely high

Geese float across a riverside canal north of Central Avenue in Albuquerque earlier this year. Experts say a new report about water stress in New Mexico may be dramatic, but it encourages the state to think about shortages. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico is the only U.S. state facing extremely high baseline water stress, according to data published this month by the World Resources Institute.

This latest report by the global research organization measures New Mexico’s overall water stress, and its conclusion is partly based on the state’s withdrawing more than 80% of its available water supply each year.

But Stacy Timmons, a hydrologist with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources and a new member of the Interstate Stream Commission, points out that different regions of New Mexico have different water demands, and labeling the entire state as extremely water-stressed may be “dramatic.”

“New Mexico has unique and complex geology,” Timmons said. “The northwest corner of the state is completely different from the southwest corner. It’s not one giant, well-connected aquifer. It’s hard to say how they measured water stress, because we (the state) don’t even have all that data yet.”

Water stress is less about drought, and more about water demand. New Mexico is in a good water year, with the latest drought monitoring data showing only a small portion of the state is facing drought conditions.

But even if state water conditions were not reflected perfectly in the data, Timmons said the report is good for raising awareness about water usage and shortages here.

“Especially when you consider climate change, the quantity of water needed to grow (crops) and do what we need to do does not match up with our water supply,” Timmons said.

Drought hits hard in areas that need to satisfy growing water demands from industry, agriculture and municipalities.

“Such a narrow gap between supply and demand leaves countries vulnerable to fluctuations like droughts or increased water withdrawals,” the World Resources Institute report reads.

Paula Garcia is the executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, and another recently appointed member of the Interstate Stream Commission. Garcia said the World Resources Institute report was sobering and highlighted a need for responsible water stewardship now and for future generations.

Heavy reliance on groundwater can create an out of sight, out of mind mentality, according to Garcia, who grew up on a New Mexico ranch that relied on rainfall and runoff.

“It’s easier to live within your means when you see how much surface water you have and can look at the mountains and see how much runoff you will have,” Garcia said. “With groundwater, it’s harder to be conscious of where the water comes from and how much you’re pumping – that is, until the well goes dry.”

Garcia said state water management strategies could benefit from the traditional acequia focus on equitable water distribution during shortages instead of strict implementation of the water rights hierarchy.

“In New Mexico, water is life – el agua es la vida,” Garcia said. “Our traditions treat water with reverence and gratitude, and that is ingrained in New Mexico culture. Our water policies should reflect that.”

Both Timmons and Garcia said the report showed a lack of comprehensive groundwater data in New Mexico, which could better inform evaluations and lead to sound water management decisions.

In April, the governor signed the Water Data Act, which requires state agencies to standardize data on water quality, water levels and water use in New Mexico. The law also requires the agencies to submit an annual water management plan to the governor.

“A lot of our water data is still in paper form,” said Timmons, who manages a state aquifer mapping project. “In a few years, we’ll have this data in a more accessible, digital form that can be updated easily. Right now, when people ask how much water there is in our state, that’s not an easy answer. I do believe New Mexico can have a brighter future in terms of water.”

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