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Politics of Drought

New Mexico wants the feds’ help—when it’s convenient

May 30, 2012, 12:00 am

On May 15, Gov. Susana Martinez issued a formal drought declaration for New Mexico. According to the National Weather Service, 2011 was the second driest year on record. The entire state experienced decreased moisture levels, and 90 percent of it suffered severe drought conditions. 


Citing fire danger, agricultural losses and water shortages, Martinez declared a state of emergency. She directed State Engineer Scott Verhines to convene the New Mexico Drought Task Force, urged local governments to ban fireworks and opened the way for state and local governments to seek emergency federal funds. 


Martinez also reprimanded the legislature for not funding her request last year for dam repairs. Raising the height of Las Vegas’ Peterson Dam, she asserted, would “substantially increase” the city’s water supply. 


But as the bathtub rings in lakes across the West show, dams work best when there’s actually water flowing into reservoirs. Emphasizing dams in the warming Southwest has a feel of grandstanding—and not very smart grandstanding at that. Expecting federal infusions of cash while shirking long-term planning also does little to serve citizens, especially those living in rural New Mexico. Already squeezed by drought and economic hardship, those communities face additional threats as cities such as Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, El Paso and Amarillo covet rural water supplies for their own needs. 


Martinez’ order also stinks of hypocrisy. Though New Mexico seeks emergency federal cash, at the same time, it opposes the US Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants and resists efforts by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to recover endangered species. (Whether it’s the silvery minnow in the Rio Grande, dunes sagebrush lizard in the drilling fields of southeastern New Mexico or the Mexican gray wolf in the Gila, the anti-fed sentiment—let’s face it—is the same). 


New Mexico also stands with the oil and gas industry in opposition to regulations requiring drillers to protect ground- and surface water from drilling waste and hydraulic fracturing fluids. It seems rational that during a drought, you’d protect what water you do have—and not squander between 100,000 and 1.5 million gallons of water fracturing one well, then leave the contaminated waste in ponds that can seep into groundwater.


Federal agencies are making strides—slowly and belatedly, but finally—in planning for climate change. Even the US Bureau of Reclamation—the agency of big dams and ditches—is assessing the risks of climate change. In April 2011, the bureau released a report about climate change and its water operations in the West; soon it will release one specific to the Rio Grande and is also studying the Santa Fe Basin.


Just a few days before Martinez’ declaration, NASA climatologist James Hansen wrote in the New York Times that scientists have known since the 1800s that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. With a surplus of the gas in the atmosphere, temperatures will inevitably rise. “This is not the result of natural variability, as some argue,” he wrote. “The earth is currently in the part of its long-term orbit cycle where temperatures would normally be cooling.”


Meanwhile—despite evidence showing that the Southwest is experiencing higher temperatures, worsening drought conditions, conifer forest die-offs and variable precipitation—the two c-words do not appear in Martinez’ drought declaration. At a conference in mid-May about drought, Verhines even spoke of the drought in terms of “natural cycles” rather than climate change. That New Mexico’s top water guy would do so is alarming, least of all because we’re way past devising good solutions for this year’s dry soils and puny river flows. 


“A truism among drought planners is that the most effective drought mitigation measures are implemented before a drought occurs,” says University of New Mexico Earth and Planetary Science Professor David Gutzler. “Anything we can do to responsibly prepare for the next drought is much more effective than responding to a drought that is already occurring.”


Although it’s easy to feel discouraged by forces as vast as climate change or political inaction, it’s heartening to remember that one person can send tremors of positive change across an entire landscape. With her husky drawl and sly smile, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center’s Sebia Hawkins had a way of grounding everyone around her. That’s why, when I learned of her death this spring, it felt as though the floor had dropped out from beneath me. Building clouds dumped unexpected—and welcome—rain at my house just moments after I heard the news. 


“It’s the cycle of life, Mama,” my 6-year-old daughter said. “She’s probably one of the raindrops falling to the ground right now.” I didn’t feel better, but I had to smile, thinking that while Sebia is sorely missed here, she’s likely chasing ships and slaying dragons elsewhere now. I also know that just as some of that rain seeped into the ground and nourished tiny shoots, Sebia’s fierce strength still sustains all of us who knew her. That’s one way natural cycles do work.

 

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