ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Dry, cracked ground isn’t an unusual sight in Albuquerque. But in 2022, that sight has become a surprising reality for many, seeing entire portions of the Rio Grande without flowing water. National headlines read “Rio Grande runs dry” and point out that it’s the first time it’s happened in 40 years.
“This is kind of a new world that we live in,” says Joaquin Baca, one of the directors for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. “People keep talking about ‘drought, historic drought’ — just stop using the word drought. Because really, this is a product of climate change.”
Summer storms quickly brought moisture back to some of the dry riverbed, but Baca warns that the monsoons provide a somewhat false hope: “You’re gonna love the monsoons, but that’s actually not enough water. Those are actually pretty small events water-wise, quantity-wise.”
He says the recent events are a wake up call as to the future of the city and state’s iconic waterway. And Baca notes that there’s likely more bad news to come.
The river’s new reality
“It’s not likely to go back to the way it was or has been,” Baca says, speaking of the Rio Grande running through Bernalillo County. “There have been droughts, there have been worse droughts. But this is different. From the 30,000 foot view, this is likely to stay and continue. Warmer temperatures, less rain.”
The idea that New Mexico’s climate is changing is nothing new. Last year, KRQE News 13 explored statewide data showing that summer temperatures have risen over time, the growing season has lengthened, and Albuquerque has experienced an increase in the number of heatwaves each year.
So did climate change cause the river to run dry? Well, yes and no, according to Professor Emeritus Dave Gutzler, a climate researcher at the University of New Mexico (UNM).
“Climate change is now tied into weather all the time,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to try to separate an event like an ongoing drought, or this present-day manifestation of the drought which is the drying of the river through Albuquerque, and trying to point to a single cause. Because everything is tied up together.”
“There are very few events where we could say with any certainty that this was caused, purely and simply, by climate change,” Gutzler adds. “And at the same time, it’s almost always wrong to dismiss climate change as a factor in any weather.”
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Looking north, near Alameda Boulevard in Albuquerque, much of the Rio Grande riverbed was exposed on July 26, 2022. Image: CKSegarra.
Although we can’t tease out the individual effect of climate change on the river running dry, it’s absolutely clear that New Mexico’s climate is changing, Gutzler says: “We know that temperatures are going up remarkably steadily, actually. So, they’ve gone up about three degrees Fahrenheit statewide over the last 40, 50 years or so. And that all by itself has consequences that go beyond temperature.”
The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources climate change outlook, which Gutzler helped put together, notes that “Over the next 50 years, mountains are likely to experience sharp declines in snowpack, which will melt earlier and generate less runoff.” And that means less water in the Rio Grande.
The Rio Grande has been the lifeblood of Albuquerque for hundreds of years. And despite advancements in groundwater pumping, water conservation, and technology, the river remains a key part of life in the Middle Rio Grande. So with the river undergoing change, the bosque, we may need to change too, Joaquin Baca from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District says.
“Albuquerque gets half of its water from from the river. They haven’t gotten that amount, a full allocation of that water for the past few years. And they likely won’t moving forward,” he says. So, how the city plans for and uses water needs to change, he adds.