Task force tells New Mexico lawmakers about risks to reservoirs, aquifer due to drought

New Mexico is undoubtedly dealing with a dire situation caused by the persistent drought, and there's no telling when conditions will improve, researchers from universities around the state said Tuesday.

The task force of experts from New Mexico State University, the University of New Mexico and New Mexico Tech delivered their preliminary findings on the vulnerability of the state's water supplies during an interim legislative meeting.

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UNM professor and climate expert David Gutzler said the current drought hasn't been as bad as the record-setting dry conditions of the 1950s. However, he said recovering from the present drought could end up being more difficult due to warmer temperatures and back-to-back years of dismal snowpack.

"Snowpack has declined as that temperature curve goes up. That's not a worry, that's reality," he said. "There is expectation that with the same amount of precipitation falling out of the sky, we'll have less water flowing down the rivers because of evaporation."

The result so far has been drying rivers, shrinking reservoirs and stressed cities and farmers.

Funded by the Legislature earlier this year, the task force is looking at supply and demand trends, particularly along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico, as well as the implications the drought could have for agriculture and other industries in New Mexico.

Lawmakers said Tuesday they want to know more about what effects the drought could have on New Mexico's economy and its ability to maintain its farms and ranches and attract new business.

According to the researchers, the drought of the 1950s came at a time when the state's economy shifted from agriculture as a driving force to service sector jobs.

Now there are more small farms in southern New Mexico and production has shifted toward permanent crops such as pecans that require a long-term water supply. Those kinds of crops make it more difficult for farmers to stop watering in times of severe shortages, the researchers said.

Around 80 percent of the state's water goes to agricultural use, but Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, cautioned his fellow lawmakers against targeting farmers as they search for solutions to stretch supplies.

"Our efficiencies have become enormous," he said. "We're making more food than ever on less and less resources."

The researchers said drought is an endemic feature of New Mexico's arid climate and that all past droughts came to an end at some point. But they can't forecast when the current dry conditions will ease up.

"It could get worse based on a perusal of the historic record, but there is some limited hope that maybe there's a beginning of drought demise on the near-term horizon," Gutzler said. "We will be watching that very closely."