ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque is not just experiencing a dry spell, we are looking at the third driest year on record in more than a century of keeping those kinds of records, said John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program.

There is a also a very real possibility that the Rio Grande through the city could go dry for the first time since 1977, he said.

About 250 people attended the 2018 Water Conference held Thursday in the UNM Student Union Building. They heard from former senior state and federal officials who worked on water issues and were able to help frame the technical, legal and administrative challenges that the next governor and appointed leaders will face with regard to managing New Mexico’s water.

“We have seen a significant decline in the budgets of the major water agencies — the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission,” Fleck said. “Their budgets are down, in inflation adjusted terms, 17-18 percent since the peak in 2008-2009. They’re spending less money on water management and there are concerns that we’re losing the core of technical staff that we need to manage our water well.”

The Office of the State Engineer regulates water rights around the state and sets water policy, while the Interstate Stream Commission is involved in making sure New Mexico meets its obligations to deliver water under our various interstate compacts with other states.

“If we don’t have a stable work force in those offices, we will be unable to adequately represent our state’s interests when we go up against our neighboring states and federal agencies on water management issues,” said Estevan Lopez, a senior water resources engineer for Stantec Consulting, a former U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner and former director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.

He also said the state needs to engage the Indian tribes and pueblos more on water management issues, particularly endangered species issues. “The Indians often control key pieces of habitat that you want to work on, so you’ve got to engage with them. They control a lot of water. They need to have a voice on how it’s going to be managed and what it’s going to be used for.”

New Mexico is one of the most arid states in the West, “and its imperative that there be more of a focus from both the executive and the legislature in real terms on water issues,” said Amy Haas, deputy executive director and general counsel with the Upper Colorado River Commission, based in Salt Lake City.

Climate change, she said, will disproportionately affect New Mexico as rising temperatures reduce stream and river flows. The Colorado River Basin, which serves 40 million people, may see flows depleted by 9 percent in the coming decades, she said.

A bright spot in water conservation is the city of Albuquerque. Per capita water consumption has been cut in half in the last 20 years, the city has switched to primarily using San Juan Chama surface water from the Rio Grande instead of ground water, allowing the underground aquifer to recharge and rise by as much as 30 feet since 2008.

Those successes will come in handy to help offset the effects of climate change. Albuquerque has moved from being in “severe drought” to the more dire “extreme drought” category, said Katherine Yuhas of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.

From Jan. 1 to May 15, the Albuquerque area received only about .72 inches of precipitation, compared to 2.47 inches during the same period last year. As a result, residents have used 161 million more gallons of water during the first four and a half months this year, which equates to about three-quarters of a gallon more per person per day.

“Our customers have always been responsive,” Yuhas said. “We really appreciate everything that they’ve done so far and know hat by working together to be extra careful, we can all weather this drought.”

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