Preparing For A Drier, Hotter, More Crowded New Mexico

Oct 14, 2020

An overwhelming majority of scientists agree that human-caused climate change is real. And along with more heat, drought and wildfires, we are facing an increase in forced migration – people fleeing their home countries for U.S. borders when they lose their crops or conditions become unlivable. No More Normal host Khalil Ekulona spoke with environmental reporter Laura Paskus about how New Mexicans should be preparing for this future, especially when it comes to water use. She says the Albuquerque stretch of the Rio Grande is critically low and could even stop flowing this month.

LAURA PASKUS: I've never seen a year like this one, where we had a pretty decent snowpack from [November to February], but we keep having – and we're going to keep having – these warm, windy springs that just eat that snowpack. We don't get the runoff that we're used to. This fall is really rotten. The Rio Grande is dry right now in two different stretches, totaling about 40 miles south of Albuquerque, and much of that drying has been ongoing since June or so. 

The Rio Grande seen from the Highway 80 bridge on October 3 in San Antonio, NM. The stretch has been dry since the end of May.
Credit Laura Paskus

You know, they had to end irrigation season early, so what that usually means is we see the river get low through Albuquerque all summer long as we're really pulling that water out into the irrigation canals, but then at the end of the irrigation season, we see the river able to bump back up. Well now, through the Albuquerque stretch, the river is so, so low. I've never noticed it this low in October. I know that water managers and agencies are hustling and doing anything they can to keep water going through the river, but it's entirely likely that we will see the Albuquerque stretch dry in October, which is something that hasn't happened since the 1970s when we managed water quite differently than we do now.

KHALIL EKULONA: And I read a piece by the journalist Abraham Lustgarten, he wrote a piece for the New York Times that talks about a mass migration of Americans predicted over the next 50 years due to climate change. He estimates that over 160 million people will move from coastal places to areas like the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and the Mountain West. That's almost half the country moving due to climate change. If that means that New Mexico goes from 2 million people to about 10 to 15 million people, can we absorb that many people operating in the way we currently are?

PASKUS: We definitely cannot absorb a huge population. You know, cities do tend to be pretty water efficient. Here in New Mexico, the vast majority of the water that's used is by agriculture. So that's a serious conversation we need to have, too.

EKULONA: Are there key, nuanced differences to each region of the state when it comes to climate change and resources that we should be paying attention to?

PASKUS: For a place like Dona Ana County. And along the border in southern New Mexico, there are water pressures, especially because of the heavy agricultural use down there. But the big thing to be thinking about, I think, is also the fact that we're seeing more extreme heat. And if you're living in a cinderblock house, with maybe a swamp cooler, but maybe only fans, people are basically living in houses that are uninhabitable. So how do we keep people safe and healthy, as we know that it's going to get hotter and hotter and hotter? Here in New Mexico, more than 80% of our water goes toward agriculture. And although it’s a significant of the economy in many ways, why are we using all of this water, and why do we still have a problem like childhood hunger? Like how do we deal with water efficiency, protecting agricultural lands and lifestyles and culture, but also getting really serious about our hunger and food insecurity problems in New Mexico?

EKULONA: The election’s coming up. What are some things that people may be missing?

PASKUS: Yeah, I think for me, the biggest thing really is: what kind of a people are we? Do we think about the future and what kind of environmental challenges future generations will face? Are we a people who care about protecting the most vulnerable people: climate refugees, immigrants, people whose lives are already so full of challenges? Are we a compassionate people who take care of one another, and think about species beyond our own? Or are we selfish? Do we only care about ourselves and our immediate families?

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A longer version of this interview originally aired on this week's episode of No More Normal, called "What's At Stake." 

Correction 10/15, 12p: In the audio, Paskus refers to New Mexico receiving normal snowpack "from the fall to about November." She meant to say from November to February.