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Climate and Water Science Advisory Panel — Report

Climate Change in New Mexico Over the Next 50 Years: Impacts on Water Resources

Nelia W. Dunbar, David S. Gutzler, Fred M. Phillips, Craig D. Allen, David DuBois, J. Phillip King, Leslie D. McFadden, Bruce M. Thomson, and Anne C. Tillery

2021

This scientific report describes climate change impacts to water resources in New Mexico. It was prepared by a team of climate and water resources scientists convened by the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources (NMBGMR). This report, also referred to as the Leap Ahead Analysis Assessment, will inform the development of the New Mexico 50-Year Water Plan, in preparation by the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC).

This report details the current state of knowledge on how climate change and water resources may vary in New Mexico over the next 50 years. In addition to synthesizing the state of knowledge on this topic, the report identifies significant data and modeling gaps and uncertainties, and suggests research directions to strengthen our understanding of climate and water resource changes. The team focused only on summarizing the state of knowledge of projected climate and water resource variation, and did not carry out new research, propose ways to mitigate projected changes, or define potential infrastructure initiatives that could optimize the use of a diminishing resource.

Highlights

These are the principal conclusions of the report. See the report summary for more details or the full report for a thorough analysis.

  • The earth is warming in response to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, which will result in greater aridity in many parts of the world, including New Mexico.
  • Global climate models driven by increasing greenhouse gases project an average temperature increase across New Mexico of between 5° and 7°F over the next 50 years.
  • The coupled trends of increasing temperature with no increase in average precipitation enables a confident projection of increasingly arid conditions, resulting in decreased soil moisture, stressed vegetation, decreased snowpack, and more severe droughts.
  • All water in New Mexico originates as rain or snow, but most returns to the atmosphere. The small percentage of rain and snow (~3.5%) that supplies groundwater and surface water will decrease as aridity increases, reducing water resources that support wildlife habitat and are available for human use and consumption.
  • Climate is a fundamental driver of ongoing and future vegetation changes that will affect the distribution and abundance of water resources.
  • Delicate soils on New Mexico’s landscapes will be damaged by increasing temperature, fire, and erosion, leading to dustier conditions and less hospitable environments for vegetation.
  • New Mexico has a dynamic landscape; climate change and increasing fire frequency over the next 50 years will amplify recently observed instability, potentially damaging infrastructure and endangering the public. 
  • Surface water supply shortages will drive both agricultural and municipal/industrial water users to rely more heavily on groundwater, a limited resource. 
  • A warming atmosphere could increase the magnitude of future storms, leading to extreme precipitation events and increased flooding. 
  • The quality of surface and groundwater resources will be impacted by warming climate; the most likely effects may include increased temperature along with higher concentrations of nutrients, dissolved oxygen, and pathogenic organisms. 
  • Statewide impacts will include higher temperatures, greater aridification, lower water quantity and quality, and possibly increased extreme precipitation events. But the topographic complexity of New Mexico will lead to some prevalent impacts within four distinct regions:
    • High Mountains—less snowfall and higher evapotranspiration, fires, and erosion, and loss of vegetation
    • Northwestern High Desert—loss of soil, increased dustiness, possible arroyo incision and change in vegetation patterns
    • Rio Grande Valley and Southwest Basins—lower river flows (25% decrease in Rio Grande flow in 50 years) and greater loss of water from reservoirs
    • Eastern Plains—loss of soil, desertification, increased dustiness and possibly higher incidence of extreme precipitation events 
  • Research topics that need to receive increased attention from the state’s science community include: better understanding of precipitation; improved modeling; and observational data acquisition (aquifer levels, soil moisture, and landscape and vegetation response).

Public Comments

Public involvement was particularly important in this project. Public comments related to the scientific analysis in this report were accepted from 9/15/2021 to 10/15/2021. In response to these comments, the report was revised and a new draft was released on 12/7/2021. Comments regarding water and climate policy should be saved for the New Mexico 50-Year Water Plan, which will have a separate public comment period.

Final Report

This report will be published as a New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources Bulletin, and will be made freely available in PDF format. The second draft will remain available until publication of the new Bulletin.