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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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New study finds climate change to reduce New Mexico's supply water, costly impacts foreseen for state's economy and agriculture

Researchers at New Mexico State University and the University of New Mexico today released a new study finding climate change will result in decreased water availability in New Mexico's Rio Grande Basin, cutting the state's water supply and hurting its economy and agriculture.


The two researchers, NMSU Agricultural Economics Professor Brian Hurd and UNM Civil Engineering Professor Julie Coonrod, note a wide range of climate models predict warmer weather and a change in precipitation patterns in New Mexico, changes the new study finds will lead to a decrease in water supply ranging from a few percent to one-third in the Rio Grande Basin. Such water supply reductions will have a significant impact on New Mexico's economy. The study used a middle scenario of greenhouse gas emissions growth over the 21st century and examined a wide range of potential changes in temperature and precipitation.

"Direct and indirect economic losses are projected to range from $13 million to $115 million by 2030 in the state of New Mexico, and from $21 million to over $300 million by 2080," said Hurd, who has studied climate change and its economic effects for more than a decade. "Traditional agricultural systems and rural communities are most at risk, and may need transitional assistance."

Much of New Mexico's surface water comes from snow melt high in the mountains. Warmer temperatures could create a shift in precipitation patterns, leading to more rain and less snow. That would mean less water stored as snow pack and available after snow melt for rivers and reservoirs, especially during the peak irrigation season in late summer.

Additionally, warmer temperatures translate to earlier seasonal snow melts. That means the water that makes it to the reservoir has more time to evaporate before it is released to agriculture downstream.

"Purely economic figures don't tell the whole story," said Hurd. "Unfortunately, what we leave out of our analysis might ultimately prove more valuable to our environment, our identity, and to the character of New Mexico."

Hurd and Coonrod say water supply losses will not only shrink crop acreage and production but could irreversibly alter New Mexico's landscape and rural character.

"Irrigated lands support more than crops," Hurd said. "They provide habitat for wildlife, open space and scenic vistas for the backdrop to New Mexico's thriving art, tourist and recreation economies." In addition, the researchers warn of the effects warming and drying would have on New Mexico's forests, rangelands and water quality, including heightened frequency and severity of wildfires, reduced forage for both livestock and wildlife and reduced water quality.

With decreases in available surface water coupled with rising urban populations, Hurd believes pressure to buy water from farmers will intensify. "Water prices will inevitably rise and farmers will find it more lucrative to lease or sell their water than to farm." He also believes clarifying water rights and improved measurement will allow farmers to more profitably manage their water, leading to greater efficiency and mitigation of some of the farm-level economic losses.

"This is something that has already been happening in the state," Hurd said. "Climate change will only hasten water transfers."

Hurd and Coonrod say with more people and less water in New Mexico's future, the patterns of water use will either have to be reorganized, or the state risks significant disruption in the services provided by water resources.

The study is available online at: http://agecon.nmsu.edu/bhurd