Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
In the summer of 2002, High Country News intern Laura Paskus sat at her desk in Paonia, Colorado. Every day, from 400 miles north of the river, she watched the Rio Grande on her computer – specifically, a stretch of it south of Albuquerque. Using the U.S. Geological Survey’s real-time stream gauge, she tracked water levels. She saw the river drop below its Endangered Species Act-mandated level and called federal water managers, who told her the data must be wrong. Then, the stream gauge dropped below zero: The riverbed was dry. Paskus calls the resulting HCN story on drought and over-irrigation her first piece of serious journalism.
Nearly two decades of writing and reporting later, Paskus still holds on to the image of a dry Rio Grande. “I know that lots of reporters can move on from stories,” she told HCN recently, “but I just can’t stop obsessing over the fact that the Rio Grande dries in the summer.”
Now a freelance journalist and reporter for New Mexico PBS, Paskus, 46, still writes about the river. She has become one of the Southwest’s foremost chroniclers of climate change and ecological collapse. Her years of dedicated reporting have culminated in a new book, “At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate,” out this month from University of New Mexico Press. The book gives an on-the-ground account of climate impacts on both human and non-human communities, as well as the state’s dependence on the energy industry.
She spoke to HCN from her home in Albuquerque, discussing water shortages, the consequences of drilling on the Navajo Nation and her own feelings of “climate grief.” This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
High Country News: Why is New Mexico at “the precipice,” as you put it, of climate change?
Laura Paskus: For New Mexico, our water situation is the most concerning. Surface water supplies are heavily impacted by warming and we’ve spent 80, 100 years relentlessly pumping groundwater. Cities such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe have tried to diversify their water portfolios. They have a mix of Rio Grande water, imported Colorado River Basin water and groundwater. The Rio Grande is so low this year that Albuquerque has already had to switch to groundwater pumping and Santa Fe had to consider ceasing its diversions from the Rio Grande (groundwater pumping depletes aquifers). Because we’ve never treated our groundwater like a savings bank, we’re not going to have those supplies to rely on in the future.
People in New Mexico want to be optimistic about the water situation. I think that’s unrealistic.
HCN: The book discusses energy development on the Navajo Nation. Can you describe the situation on the ground?
LP: When you drive through the eastern Navajo Nation, you see the impacts of our choices for cheap gas and oil, and how people’s daily lives and their futures are affected. In the 2000s, after natural gas prices dropped, there was a push by the oil and gas industry to get the Bureau of Land Management to issue more (drilling) leases. And especially around 2013-14 (on the Navajo Nation), there was a ton of development, lots of wells drilled, a lot of flaring, a lot of big industrial facilities being built. You started seeing a ton of traffic, and the dirt roads that connect these communities and Chapter Houses were getting dug up by big trucks. There are definitely Navajo people who support the industry and who had leases, but I met a group of Navajo women who were pushing back against the industry – especially against the Bureau of Land Management. The concerns they had were very on-the-ground: The roads would get so muddy in the spring that they were having a hard time getting out of or back to their homes. They were also worried about flaring.
Then, at about the same time, NASA released a study showing a methane cloud over the Four Corners region. So, northwestern New Mexico became a really, really interesting place to pay attention to climate change, as well as the on-the-ground impacts of development and the choices that we make. We might not have known what we were doing at first, but we definitely do now.
HCN: What’s the relationship between tribal consultation when it comes to oil and gas drilling, and subsequent climate impacts?
LP: I think many people in federal agencies do their best, but tribal consultation, agency-wide and nationwide, is abysmal. And I think, in northwestern New Mexico, you have the Navajo Nation, Navajo chapters, Navajo families, the All Pueblo Council of Governors, individual Pueblo families, and they are all saying: “This area around Chaco Canyon (a UNESCO World Heritage site near where the Interior Department wants to expand oil and gas extraction) is sacred to us. It has meaning. Please, not only protect it, but also allow us a say in what happens.” And if you look at BLM decisions, they are not listening to the tribes. Tribal consultation in the United States has never honored the spirit of the law, and the laws themselves are too flimsy.
HCN: How do your observations about New Mexico’s climate crisis apply to the Southwest at large?
LP: New Mexico is unique, of course – politically, historically. But what we see here is true across the arid U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico. The Rio Grande and the Colorado River share similar problems; even when there’s good, or normal, snowpack, runoff has dipped because of temperature increases. Across the region, we see conifer forests dying, farmlands puckered, cities with more extreme temperatures. And no matter where you look – Las Cruces, New Mexico; Phoenix, Arizona; or Chihuahua City, Mexico – people already facing challenges will be hit the hardest. That’s true whether you’re a small farmer, someone in a Sunbelt city with an inadequate cooling system, or someone living where air quality is already poor and respiratory disease rates already high.
HCN: In your book, you discuss “climate grief.” What irreversible changes to New Mexico ecosystems provoke this feeling for you?
LP: Definitely the Rio Grande, and this big chunk of the Jemez Mountains that, after the Las Conchas Fire (a 2011 blaze, the largest in state history at the time), just could not recover. Before the fire, it was a dense conifer forest. But post-Las Conchas, about 30,000 acres are just open, weedy mountainscapes and, where there were conifers, you see locust, aspen and Gambel oak filling in. These are entirely different forests from 10 or 20 years ago.
HCN: You write about the despair you feel for the planet and how that relates to personal forms of grief. The example you give is your father’s funeral. Can you talk about this connection?
LP: For people like me, who are not religious, the outdoors is often the place to go when we’re sad or confused. When you’re an environmental reporter and you learn not only what’s happening to the climate, but also what we’ve let happen, there are times in my life when I’ve been unable to feel that solace. I certainly don’t know what to do with my grief and I think a lot of people don’t. There’s this tendency to think about what’s happening to the climate, or even your favorite places, in an abstract way. I was at a point in my career where I couldn’t see it was abstract any more.
I’ve struggled my whole life with my relationship with my dad, and his funeral, as sad and overwhelming as it was, was a useful ceremony to travel through and allow me to think about our physical relationship with the world in a way that gave me some tools to think about my reporting on the environment. If it’s OK to mourn one person, it’s definitely OK to grieve for an entire ecosystem or mountain range or planet.
Nick Bowlin is a contributing editor at High Country News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor. This story was originally published by High county News on Sept. 16, 2020.