As our state experiences a relatively dry winter, many New Mexicans are concerned about what the hot summer months will mean for our water resources. I share their concerns, as New Mexico and the western United States have experienced severe droughts for over a decade and we are not yet fully prepared for them.
Unless we act quickly, drought will continue to have negative effects on our communities, causing crop yield losses and forcing herders to sell their cattle herds due to lack of water. Jobs could dry up along with the water that sustains them.
We found ourselves in a very similar position last year, but New Mexicans were blessed with a healthy monsoon season that benefited our agricultural producers and made our state the greenest in recent memory. . Without the monsoon season, Elephant Butte Reservoir, one of the state’s biggest tourist destinations and a critical source of water for agricultural irrigation, would almost dry up. We can’t count on this to be an annual event; we need to take steps to prepare for a dry year without a strong monsoon, which 2022 could very well be.
All options must be on the table to better prepare ourselves, including creating minimum pools in our reservoirs, investing in water storage and desalination, removing invasive species, and preventive maintenance of rivers. . These tasks will not happen overnight, but I am committed to ensuring that southern New Mexico gets its fair share of these investments.
An important first step for federal and state water managers is to address the invasive species crisis currently plaguing the Rio Grande. Invasive species, such as salt cedar, have affected water quality and contributed to the decline of many native species. The salt cedar also absorbs much more water than the native species it has displaced, consuming up to 200 gallons of water per day. This contributes to lower river flow and harms downstream communities and water users. Unfortunately, government regulations such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act make the removal of these invasive species very difficult for water managers. I work on regulatory reform and work with water managers to make sure they have the tools they need to tackle the invasive species crisis.
A necessary long-term step is to rehabilitate and build new water storage infrastructure. The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency responsible for managing the West’s water supply, uses water storage infrastructure that, in some cases, is six decades old. At the start of 2020, Reclamation estimated its extraordinary five-year maintenance and rehabilitation needs at $3.8 billion. The scope and scale of these challenges speaks volumes about the unreliability of our water supply systems across the West. Not all of these costs would – or should – be incurred at the federal level, and collaborative tools such as water title transfers with surrounding tribes, cities, and states can help meet the needs for costs and management. Resilient water systems are the cornerstone of our rural communities, farms and ranches.
We must also recognize the integral importance of our water resources to the economy of our state. Water means jobs for New Mexico.
New Mexico’s chile, our most iconic agricultural product, provides 4,500 jobs and $450 million to the state’s economy and depends on water from the Rio Grande. This industry is currently under attack from rising costs and excessive government regulations. These increased costs are passed on to the consumer and cause some to turn to the cheaper Chile from Mexico. Add the effect of water shortages to that mix and you have our state’s most iconic industry struggling to survive. This underscores the importance of making sound investments in our water resources.
I know that some of the solutions I have suggested will take time and require local, state, and federal entities to work together in a spirit of cooperation for our common goal of a water-secure Southern New Mexico. For generations and centuries, New Mexicans have found ways to innovate and overcome great challenges. I will seek solutions that work for everyone, crossing partisan divides and geographic boundaries to meet the needs of hard-working New Mexicans.
U.S. Representative Yvette Herrell, RN.M., represents New Mexico’s second congressional district.