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New Mexico’s Lessening Snowpack Key Factor Of Worsening Drought Conditions

More than 70% of New Mexico’s snowpack will be gone by the end of the century, according to state water specialist and Congresswoman Melanie Stansbury. She addressed how regular drought conditions have been exasperated by climate change at the 2021 Next Generation Water Summit.

“With climate change, and we have already seen the signal over the last decade and a half here in New Mexico, we're seeing a lot of irregularity, a reduction in snowpack, a reduction in runoff, and the whole system is completely changing,” Stansbury said. “And when you think about it in a historical standpoint, it means that our traditional systems, that are adapted to hundreds of years of the current system, are going to have to be modified.”

Winter snowpack in the state has been decreasing since the 1950s. Climate Scientist Katharine Hayhoe says that reduced snowpack has led to consequences for both aquatic ecosystems and the people who depend on them.

“The last few years there have been several very, very, sketchy seasons at Taos and Ski Santa Fe, and of course Ski Apache has been barely open, and that's in part, both because of warmer temperatures, as well as decreased precipitation,” Hayhoe said. “It doesn't just affect winter recreation. It also means that there's less water available that comes from snowmelt later on that has significant economic and environmental consequences.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that most of New Mexico is currently experiencing some form of drought. In May, over half of the state fell into the exceptional drought category—the most extreme classification. Congresswoman Melanie Stansbury says monitoring water systems in real-time will be key to successful management of the scarce resource going forward.

“We're going to need to understand where the water is flowing, where's it going, where's it coming in and out, and what are the impacts to the entire system,” Stansbury said. “The only way we can do that is by upgrading our infrastructure, bringing a big data framework to our understanding of hydrology and the systems that impact it.”

Garfield Farmer Edmund Ogaz is also pushing for responsible water management. Due to drought, farmers in the state have seen their allowed water use cut from more than three feet to less than four inches depending on the region. Ogaz says a big state effort is needed in order to coordinate a water plan beneficial for all key stakeholders.

“There's got to be a big effort by the State of New Mexico to manage this water for it [to] benefit everybody,” Ogaz said. “It's getting scarce. You know, there's only so much water available. Unless we all get together and try to solve this problem, I don't know if it’ll ever get solved.”

When not using groundwater, Ogaz depends on water from the Elephant Butte Irrigation District in Southern New Mexico. The Elephant Butte Reservoir, which was predicted to see only 35% of average spring runoff due in part to a lack of snowpack, is expected to have one of the driest seasons on record—opening up water for irrigation for only one month.

The lack of water within Elephant Butte is just one example of how scarce water is in New Mexico. That scarcity is one reason Congresswoman Melanie Stansbury is calling on the state to look beyond groundwater management and focus on recycling and other conservation programs in order to protect the resource for stakeholders.

“We as a state have not come up with a really robust set of water conservation policies, and also incentives. I think that we have been heavily focused on kind of like macro water management, around how the river is managed and with our groundwater systems,” Stansbury said. “I would love to see our state and local authorities, really look at what are the opportunities, especially now as we're seeing the system changing so dramatically, to really incentivize and make it easier to do water reuse, recycling and conservation programs.”

Stansbury also highlighted a need to advocate for federal funding, noting that grant programs are available through resources like the Bureau of Reclamation. Beyond that, she emphasized the federal government must play a role in finding community-based solutions by investing in infrastructure.  

Madison Staten was a Multimedia Reporter for KRWG Public Media from 2020-2022.