KUNM

Laura Paskus

Independent Journalist
Laura Paskus

Last week, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report from the world’s top climate scientists detailing everything from extreme drought to rising sea levels.

For decades, the IPCC has collected information about changes in the climate over time and improved models predicting future changes. One of the scientists who worked on the Fifth Assessment Report is the University of New Mexico’s David Gutzler.

Laura Paskus

 Editor's Note: This piece originally aired in April, 2013 on KUNM. 

The muddy waters of the Rio Grande are still flowing through Albuquerque. But New Mexico is in the grip of long-term drought and there’s little water left in upstream reservoirs. That means this summer will probably be like last year—when 52 miles of the Rio Grande dried up south of Albuquerque.

Laura Paskus headed out to take a look with one of the world’s leading experts on desert rivers and sent us this audio postcard.

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Earlier this month, the New Mexico Environment Department gave the federal government the green light to ship “hot,” remote handled waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in a new type of container.  

Since 1999, transuranic waste from nuclear weapons manufacturing has been stored in salt caverns a half-mile below the surface of the earth at WIPP in southern New Mexico.

Laura Paskus/KUNM

The Rio Grande ran low and dry this year.  That was bad news for fish and for farmers. And it’s unlikely that relief is in sight: Reservoirs are low and climate change is here.

In the second of this two part series, KUNM  takes a look at the Rio Grande—which one advocate worries might someday be a “ghost river.”

Janet Jarratt runs a dairy in Valencia County, south of Albuquerque. Farmers work harder than anyone she knows.  And making a living is even tougher during dry years, she says, when farmers don’t know if they’ll get their water.

Map from Mesilla Valley Economic Development Alliance. http://www.new-mexico-borderplex.com/

Just before nine o clock this morning, people living or working near the Santa Teresa Industrial Park received a call from authorities. They were told to remain indoors and seal windows and vents.

By noon, 200 people had been evacuated to the local high school. People were having a hard time breathing, were feeling light-headed, nauseous and dizzy.  And they were treated for exposure to an "unknown substance." About that time, hazmat teams began moving into the area to test air quality.

Laura Paskus/KUNM

At the end of October, the Rio Grande in Los Lunas is crunchy.

Except for a few crows and one sandhill crane flying high above, the skies are quiet. There’s no water here, and no reason for cranes or ducks to land. Up and down the riverbed, there’s only sand.

This time of year, Mike Hatch is still getting out of bed at about two in the morning. Since mid-June, he’s been tracking the drying as part of the government’s River Eyes program.

USFWS

It’s a sunny Saturday morning at the Randall Davey Audubon Center—way up Canyon Road in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos. Jays, chickadees, and nuthatches are all keeping a noisy watch on the feeders—and the festivities.

Audubon New Mexico is honoring Rachel Carson, whose book, Silent Spring, was published 50 years ago.

In her book, Carson wrote of how the pesticide DDT was killing wildlife and endangering humans. In particular, birds exposed to DDT were laying eggs with shells so thin they broke before hatching time.

Brandon Bickel, US Forest Service Gila National Forest. http://bit.ly/KGcdDb

Western wildfires have gotten bigger—and the wildfire season is getting longer. That’s according to a new report from the nonprofit organization Climate Central.

Since the 1970’s the average number of large fires each year has doubled in many western states, including  New Mexico.

The bigger fires are due in part to how forests have been managed.  For much of the 20th century, forest fires were suppressed—and dry timber and vegetation built up to dangerous levels.

But climate scientists say warmer temperatures are also responsible.

Photo by craigCloutier - Creative Commons License

This week, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish announced it’s keeping a closer eye on southern New Mexico, where some deer are infected with chronic wasting disease. That disease attacks the brain and spinal column of deer and elk, causing them to become emaciated and eventually die.  

Chronic wasting disease isn’t widespread in New Mexico, but there are some hot zones near Cloudcroft and Alamogordo.

USDA, Agricultural Research Service

Head north of Albuquerque and look over toward the Rio Grande and its forest, or bosque. Within that green ribbon of trees, you’ll also spot leaves that are reddish brown. Even from the Interstate, the dying trees are obvious.

Those leaves belong to tamarisk, or salt cedar. More than a century ago, the trees were introduced to control erosion and act as windbreaks. But they have overtaken riverbanks across the southwestern United States, sucking up water and choking out native species like cottonwoods and willows.

KUNM/Laura Paskus

Here, where the Alameda Bridge crosses the Rio Grande on the north side of Albuquerque, you can see what New Mexico’s weak monsoon season looks like on the ground.

The water is braided around sandbars and islands. It’s so shallow that even where the river is flowing, sand is visible just a few inches below the surface. Two Canada Geese honk beneath the bridge, then take off. When they land again, their feet are barely covered by the water.

Laura Paskus/KUNM

On Tuesday in Las Cruces, New Mexico State University hosted the 57th annual New Mexico Water Conference. This year’s conference was titled “Hard Choices” and its participants were trying to figure out how New Mexicans can adapt to water scarcity. 

At the conference, there were federal and state water managers, scientists, activists, farmers—anyone with an interest in understanding how New Mexico’s water is managed and how it’s going to be managed in the future, as water becomes increasingly scarce.

US Bureau of Reclamation

UPDATED 08-22-12, 8:00 PM:

Additional rains have reconnected flows within the stretch of the Pecos River that includes habitat for the Pecos bluntnose shiner. Biologists do not plan to conduct salvage work this week. About 30 miles of the river still remain dry.

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This has been a dry year in New Mexico. Statewide, we’ve received only half the precipitation of average, and most of eastern New Mexico is experiencing what the National Weather Service calls “extreme drought.” 

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

In 1979, a dam at a uranium mine collapsed. More than 90 million gallons of radioactive waste shot down the Rio Puerco.

It was the largest release of radioactive material in United States history. And it happened in Church Rock, on the Navajo reservation in northwestern New Mexico.

No comprehensive health studies were done to learn how the spill might have affected people living nearby.

Now, Reps. Ben Ray Luján, Edward J. Markey, Henry A. Waxman, and Frank Pallone are asking for a formal update on a study that Congress authorized four years ago.

Wikipedia

New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman, D, was in Santa Fe today, listening to testimony about the impacts of climate change. During a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the senator heard what’s happening on the ground in New Mexico.

In his testimony, Governor Walter Dasheno of Santa Clara Pueblo pointed out that climate change contributed to last year’s Las Conchas fire. That fire burned more than 150,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains.

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