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Report finds agriculture uses 80% of NM's fresh water

Agricultural machinery on a farm in southern NM
Alice Fordham
Agricultural machinery on a farm in southern NM

As climate change and drought make water an ever-scarcer commodity in New Mexico, a report last month by the non-governmental organization Food and Water Watch found agriculture is using more than 80% of the state's fresh water.

The report analyzed water use in the state and criticized dairies, alfalfa farming and pecan farming as, "egregious examples of water misuse." It called on the state to deny permits for new or expanding dairy, alfalfa and pecan farms and to prioritize drinking water in times of shortage.

Professor Sam Fernald at New Mexico State University's Water Resources Research Institute said there is no question New Mexico's water is becoming scarcer and farming more difficult. First, hotter temperatures mean more evaporation so farmers need to irrigate more.

"It's going to take up to 15% more water just to meet those crop needs," he said.

Also, ongoing interstate negotiations may reduce the amount of water available. But he says farming can have ecological benefits as well as providing employment and preventing rural depopulation, and that it is not helpful to cast agriculture as a villain. Instead, his department is working on solutions.

"It may be possible to grow pistachios and make as much money as you would with pecans, but with less water use," he said. “Using drip or sprinkler irrigation for crops is also effective.”

He added that research by Rolando Flores, dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences at NMSU, suggests even dairy farms can find efficiencies by reusing water, treating water onsite, and by being more efficient with food processing.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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