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Climate Change Threatens New Mexico Water, Land Resources


Climate change isn’t some distant phenomenon humans can afford to worry about later. It’s happening now and its effects, especially in the Southwest, can be felt every day.

Regionally, climate scientists say increasing temperatures in New Mexico and throughout the Southwest decrease the amount of snow runoff that flows into river basins like the Rio Grande, affecting the area’s water supply. NMSU Plant and Environmental Sciences professor and State Climatologist Dave DuBois said less snow at higher elevations has serious implications for managing water resources.

“At least in Southern New Mexico, we rely on the surface water coming from Colorado, coming down and we like it to melt at a certain time and then fill our reservoirs you know all the way from Colorado all the way down to Elephant Butte and Caballo and climate change is actually changing the way that happens and there’s actually less water coming down," DuBois said. "So, it’s not only the timing but also the amount of water is decreasing."

University of Arizona Associate Professor Dr. Gregg Garfin studies climate, natural resources and policy and recently visited New Mexico State University to speak at a climate change seminar series. Garfin said along with reduced snowpack, climate change decreases soil moisture and increases the number of wildfires.

“So, one of the things we’ve seen throughout the Southwest and in New Mexico as well is because we have a longer snow-free season and because we have higher temperatures, we have experienced a longer fire season,” Garfin said. “Fuels dry out more and all it takes is an ignition and we can have some very devastating fires so we have seen much larger fires in the last decade or so than we’ve seen previously in history.”

A federal study states the number of large forest fires in the western U.S. and Alaska has increased since the early 1980s and is projected to rise even more with climate change.

Garfin said burning fossil fuels releases heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, deforestation reduces the Earth’s ability to remove those gases, creating a greenhouse effect. As a result, Garfin said higher temperatures worsen drought and threaten surface water sources like rivers and lakes.

“The evidence is that surface water is going to be less reliable in the future. It’s not like all the surface water is going to go away but as I said it will be less reliable, there will be lower flows, longer droughts or more severe droughts,” Garfin said.

Data from the Fourth National Climate Assessment shows global average annual temperatures have increased 1 degree Celsius from 1901 to 2016. In the United States, temperatures are projected to rise about 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 and pass 2 degrees Celsius, the limit before climate change becomes dangerous, by the end of the century.

According to the study, heatwaves have become more frequent in the United States since the 1960s while extreme cold temperatures and cold waves are less frequent. Garfin said while there are natural variations in climate, increasing temperatures are drying the Southwest.

Naturally, climate change affects more than humans. Dr. Gary Roemer is a professor in NMSU’s fish, wildlife and conservation ecology department. Roemer said drought and increased land-surface temperatures due to climate change have impacted his studies on rodents like prairie dogs and banner-tailed kangaroo rats. Roemer said the effect of climate change on wildlife is a good predictor of what’s to come for people.

“If we impact our biosphere to the point where it’s having more difficult time, if you want to look at this way of supporting wildlife populations; well then we’re going to have a more difficult time supporting ourselves as we continue to degrade the biosphere,” Roemer said.

Roemer said New Mexico’s ability to sustain agriculture is also something to take into account.

“Agriculture is the biggest utilization of water for us relative to residential water use. And so, with that we’re going to have a harder and harder time watering our crops and keeping up with production as we have in the past,” Roemer said. “So, we have to come up with strategies to deal with the potential for these types of long term droughts and extreme temperatures.”

Garfin said there are many ways people can reduce their carbon footprints now, like installing renewable energy sources in their homes and switching to cleaner modes of transportation. DuBois said it’s never too late for people to take action to reduce their environmental impact.

“The damage has already been done but it could get worse and we don’t want that to happen. We want to keep it at a certain level and then we can deal with it,” DuBois said.

Experts agreed if climate change isn’t dealt with now, there won’t be a later opportunity.

Michael Hernandez was a multimedia reporter for KRWG Public Media from late 2017 through early 2020. He continues to appear on KRWG-TV from time to time on our popular "EnviroMinute" segments, which feature conservation and citizen science issues in the region.