New Mexico seeing signs akin to a 16th century megadrought - Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico seeing signs akin to a 16th century megadrought

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The Rio Grande near Rio Bravo Boulevard in late June. New Mexico must prepare for long-term water shortages, climatologists and water experts told state lawmakers on Tuesday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s current drought will end someday.

But the state must prepare for long-term water shortages, climate scientists and water experts told state lawmakers Tuesday.

Statewide drought is approaching the severity similar to that of a 16th century megadrought, said David Gutzler, climate scientist and professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico.

Rising global temperatures, a consequence of greenhouse-gas induced climate change, make drought worse by affecting regional snowpack.

“The dismal conditions we see today in the Rio Grande are not the result of deficient falling snow last winter in the Rio Grande headwaters,” Gutzler said during a meeting of the Legislature’s Water and Natural Resources Committee. “It’s because the snow melted earlier, went away more rapidly and simply didn’t provide as much runoff as it did in the good old days.”

Gutzler cautioned against becoming complacent about long-term water issues once rainfall starts boosting river flows and soil moisture.

New Mexico’s most recent “historic drought” occurred in the 1950s.

But tree-ring data and reconstruction of Rio Grande flows show an intensely-dry period in the late 1500s, which Gutzler referred to as an “enormous drought that affected ecosystems and societies.”

American Geophysical Union research published in 2000 said the megadrought may have contributed to nearly a dozen Southwestern pueblos being abandoned in the 16th century.

About 25% of New Mexico is in exceptional drought, the National Drought Monitor’s most severe category. That’s a significant change from the beginning of April, when nearly 54% of the state reported exceptional drought.

“We’re seeing some improvement,” said David DuBois, New Mexico’s state climatologist. “Every week we’ve been improving, but we’ve got a ways to go.”

Rep. Jack Chatfield

Minimal surface water has limited statewide irrigation allotments and reservoir storage.

Republican Rep. Jack Chatfield, a Mosquero rancher, said reuse technologies could help conserve water without infringing on landowners’ water rights.

“Don’t throw our free enterprise system out the window on the way to try to save ourselves from overuse of water,” Chatfield said.

Sharing limited supplies can coexist with water rights appropriations, said Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association and a Mora County rancher.

Water scarcity has prompted renegotiations of shortage sharing agreements in several acequia communities.

“We’re very accustomed to sharing water from a practical standpoint, but it’s also deeply ingrained in our culture,” Garcia said.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said he worries that less reliable surface water supplies could further “drive an economic wedge” between smaller water users and bigger farmers.

“We just manage from crisis to crisis … but we never really solve the issues,” Cervantes said.

The Office of the State Engineer estimates that its 50-year water plan to help inform state water policy will be finalized in March 2022.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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