It’s not a drought — it’s a megadrought | Editorials


To anyone living in New Mexico and the Southwest, the report the region is living through an unprecedented drought is anything but breaking news.

It merely confirms daily experience.

Precipitation is scarce. Rivers are drying or dried. Snowpack is lagging, and acequia users often lack water to irrigate. Trees are dying, whether in our front yards or in the mountains. Wildfires are growing larger and hotter. And none of this is likely to end any time soon.

On Monday, scientists told us why all of this is happening, reporting tree ring data has revealed the current megadrought is so severe that we are living through the driest two decades in the region in about 1,200 years. Climate scientists previously believed this drought was the worst in 500 years.

The tree rings — wider in wet years and narrow in dry — tell the story.

The current dry spell began in 2000, with the exceptionally dry summer of 2021 exacerbating conditions. That left 2000-21 as the driest 22-year period since A.D. 800. That’s as far back as data goes.

Worse, climate change is making everything worse. UCLA climate scientist A. Park Williams told the New York Times the Southwest would have been in a dry period no matter what, just one not as damaging. Without climate change, he said, “its severity would have been only 60 percent of what it was.”

Temperature is the driver, rising because of human-caused activities that increase greenhouse gas emissions.

In a megadrought, nature can’t put enough wet years together in a row to prevail over the dry ones. We see this in our recent experiences, when wet years haven’t busted the drought. Example: 2005, a year that had moisture, just not enough to rout the dryness. That was because of climate change, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Previous megadroughts have lasted as long as 30 years over the last 1,200 years, and scientists expect that to hold true. All of this has implications for the people who live here and the elected officials who set policy.

New Mexico’s top water official is the state engineer, the recently confirmed Mike Hamman. He also consults with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on all water concerns. Fortunately, he understands New Mexico’s complex situation — the drought, acequia users, the need to adjudicate water rights, the state’s unique water laws, obligations to tribes and, of course, the disagreements with Texas over what water we owe them.

Even with so much to juggle, Hamman also must speak out on how the state best can use the water that remains. Everything from city building codes to the health of rivers to how to balance agriculture and urban needs must be up for discussion.

With federal and state dollars available for infrastructure, funds need to be diverted to water projects. Think about everything from restoring rivers to stopping leaks to building public and private water catchment systems. How can New Mexico grow food using less water and run cities without so much waste? Israel, for example, recycles 90 percent of its wastewater. Other dry countries and cities completely ban lawns or otherwise restrict landscaping.

Santa Fe already has handed out low-flow toilets; pushing for home and commercial water catchment systems is a logical next step.

In Santa Fe, the growth management study Mayor Alan Webber has promised should help the city understand its limits (though without a study that includes Santa Fe County, its value is incomplete). The city has always pointed to its multiple sources of water and innovative water rate structure — use too much and you pay — as reasons why at least some growth should not be a concern.

It’s essential to find out the limits before it is too late.

As a state and region, we should look to the truly dry countries for examples. See what they do to conserve and use water wisely. Adopt the best examples and start preparing New Mexico for a drier, hotter future.

Meanwhile, this megadrought has not run its course. Even when more generous rains and snow return, it is likely the region will be drier than before. Adaptation is key, and time is running out.