The watersheds of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico provide between 50-75% of the water found in the Rio Grande. But an increased severity and frequency of wildfires are threatening the area’s snowpack and the river itself.
New Mexico State University Extension Forest and Fire Specialist Doug Cram says southern latitudes and lower elevations are often more susceptible to a reduction in snowpack after wildfires, leaving unique challenges for the state of New Mexico.
“When it's snowing all the tree canopy intercepts that snow, but if there's a severe wildland fire those trees would be removed,” Cram said. “So, you’d have snow on the ground, but then those trees aren't there to provide shade. And so, you’d have impact from solar radiation. So, you have these competing factors.”
Cram says another factor to consider is the amount of charcoal and ash that can blanket parts of New Mexico’s snowpack.
“Instead of reflecting more light because it's white, the black would be absorbing more sunlight, and so would increase shortwave radiation,” Cram said. “And you can imagine how that might impact snow.”
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, over 10.1 million acres burned nationwide in 2020. In 2019, it was slightly over 4.6 million acres. For New Mexico, a state currently predicted to lose more than 70% of its snowpack by the end of the century, protecting the resource from wildfires is critical.
Currently, federal appropriations, such as the $1.58 billion in federal dollars spent on wildfire response in 2019, are largely focused on fire suppression efforts. Cram says increasing management expenditures focusing on the health of the watershed, rather than concentrating largely on suppressing fires as they happen, is a smart investment.
“One of our challenges, here in the southwest and across the west, is the amount of money we put into our forest management,” Cram said. “We have less money spent on management through time and more money spent on suppression…Managing watersheds is a better investment. So, what we'd like to see here through time is increased expenditures and management and decreased expenditure in suppression.”
And wildfires aren’t the only danger to the Rio Grande. Kevin Bixby, the executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center, says water distribution below Elephant Butte leaves nothing for the ecosystem itself.
“The federal government filed for water rights for the entire flow of the Rio Grande below Elephant Butte so every drop in the river is spoken for,” Bixby said. “What that means in a practical way is that there is no legal obligation to leave any water in the river.”
Bixby listed more than 15 native fish species once found in Southern New Mexico that are now gone due to the river drying up annually and the loss of aquatic habitat. He says he would like to see the section of the Rio Grande below Elephant Butte re-engineered to help restore the ecosystem.
“One possibility is to re-engineer a mini Rio Grande that functions like the old river but on a smaller scale. It would require obtaining a share of water for the river itself,” Bixby said. “And then using that water to mimic the way the river used to flow and particularly the spring floods. If we did that the river itself could restore water habitats.”