NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – New U.S. census data shows our population in New Mexico increased by just 3 percent in the last ten years which is well below the national average. Lawmakers said rural counties are the ones hardest hit. These small New Mexico counties said ranches and farms are getting bigger with fewer families operating them, and there aren’t a lot of businesses moving in.

New Mexico’s census data is disappointing, but not surprising, for lawmakers from some rural counties. “While we have natural resources and mountains and beauty and streams and clean air, there just is a severe lack of jobs,” Rep. Roger Montoya, who represents Mora County, said.

Montoya said Mora County saw a 14 percent decline in population. Montoya said it is due to the lack of investment in infrastructure over the years in rural New Mexico. “We cannot create an educational system or healthcare systems or economic drivers without access to broadband, water, wastewater, electricity, etc.,” Montoya said.

Data shows small New Mexico counties tend to lose more in population than larger ones. Hidalgo’s population decreased by 15 percent. De Baca had the largest drop of 16 percent. “We are recruiting businesses, as many businesses as we can, to come back in,” Sen. Stuart Ingle said. “It is one of those things all New Mexico rural counties face.”

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There are some counties that got bigger. The majority of new residents are in Sandoval County. Ingle said oil and gas helped some areas out too. “The oil industry has increased populations in a couple counties just south of where Roosevelt is,” Ingle said. “Eddy and Lea are both up by thousands of people.”

Montoya said he thinks the infrastructure bill that recently cleared the senate will help move rural New Mexico forward. Over five years, the state is expected to receive $2.5 billion for highway projects and $225 million for bridge replacement and repair. “It is going to be how to develop the capacity in the timeline to do the engineering and manifest the dreams we have had for more than 40 or 50 years,” Montoya said.

Montoya said in his district, he now has to recover at least 3,000 voters. During redistricting, he said they may stretch his district even more which Montoya said already covers 400 square miles. Lawmakers said rural counties also struggle with keeping young people around who they said tend to head off to bigger cities with more economic security.