Coalition studies options as historic drought conditions threaten New Mexico agriculture and water

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Water and agriculture organizations are trying to figure out how to bolster water-dependent crop industries in New Mexico during a mega-drought caused by climate change that is only expected to get worse.

“Conserving water in agricultural valleys is essential for both ecological and community resilience. We all know that,” said Connie Maxwell, a researcher who presented at the state’s 2022 Water Conference on Thursday.

The NM Water Resources Research Institute, the Acequia Association, and some agricultural divisions of New Mexico State University have partnered to study the issue. The effort includes federally funded projects with water system plans and models, so the coalition can see if this is a way to work with the depletion of water resources in the state.

Almost all of New Mexico is abnormally dry, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System, and nearly half of the state is experiencing moderate drought. Maxwell said land irrigation in New Mexico has declined in recent decades.

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Farmers and environmental scientists have been examining since September whether drier fields could be partly fed by arroyo flows and could also grow crops that require less water in the Rio Grande and San basins. Juan, Maxwell reported. They are also investigating how flood flow could be controlled between the upper catchments and the valley.

“The question is really what it will take to preserve agriculture and communities in the river valleys,” Maxwell said.

The Acequia Association will focus on drought, ways to expand and share water sources, and growing crops that can thrive in a changing climate. This second branch of research in the northern Rio Grande Basin and the San Juan River Basin will begin in March.

A study of the tributaries of the Rio Grande in an effort to control flooding and sediment accumulation is not yet funded. Partner organizations should know by the end of the year if the state Department of Environment will provide grants.

The coalition tries to center innovation, Maxwell said, but that doesn’t always mean doing something new. Sometimes, she said, going back to traditional practices like enjoying arroyo streams or acequias might be the best way forward.

“A key goal is to maintain traditional cultural values,” she said, “and support community health.”

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