You’ve probably heard that the Rio Grande is important for life in Albuquerque and throughout the Rio Grande Valley. But it’s also hard to understate that importance. The river and its connected underground aquifer provides drinking water for hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans. On top of that, the river is crucial to farming throughout the Rio Grande Valley, nearly 2,000 miles from Colorado to Mexico. But scientists and water managers agree, the supply is limited.
There are now over 560,000 people in Albuquerque alone, according to the latest census numbers. Rio Rancho has over 100,000 residents. Valencia County adds another 77,000 people. Santa Fe County tacks on another 155,000 or so. All told, between Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, the Rio Grande and its basin are expected to provide water for about 6 million people, according to the Rio Grande International Study Center. And it provides water to more than half of New Mexico’s population.
That’s a lot of people for a river that’s becoming less reliable thanks, in part, to climate change. So, some say it’s clear — there isn’t enough for everyone.
With the river occasionally running dry, Stephanie Russo Baca puts it bluntly: “No, there isn’t [enough water] because otherwise, if there was [enough], the river would be full,” she says. “We already know that there isn’t [enough] for all the uses.”
Baca is the chair of the Middle Rio Grande Conservation District, the group that controls who gets river water from Sandoval County in the north, through Socorro County in the south. One of their stated goals is “keeping the valley green” by managing irrigation, flood control, and water conservation.
By law, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas must all share the Rio Grande’s water. So in New Mexico, one definition of “enough” water means having enough to send to Texas. But whether we have “enough” also depends on what you want to use water for, according to Professor Emeritus Dave Gutzler, a climate researcher at the University of New Mexico (UNM).
“I think it’s very easy to look at the data and state that the current rate of agricultural water consumption is not sustainable. Period. It won’t work,” he says. “And the question is, what do we, as a statewide community, do about that?”
A way of life: New Mexico’s water use
The latest numbers on statewide water use show that irrigated agriculture accounted for over 76% of the state’s water use in 2015. Public water supply and domestic wells accounted for just over 10% of the entire state’s use, according to the Office of the State Engineer.
And while farmers do use the majority of the state’s water, it’s important to note that farming isn’t a new phenomenon in New Mexico. Going back even before Spanish settlers and conquistadors explored the land, New Mexico has strong agricultural roots, with farming serving as a longstanding tradition amongst generations of families.
And to some extent, farmers already get the short end of the stick, Baca explains. Because while access to water is practically guaranteed for homes in Albuquerque via the municipal supply, farmers have to rely on there being enough water to irrigate by the time the river gets to them, or else pump their water out of the ground and hope their wells don’t run dry or pull up salty water.
“It’s one of those things where cities and towns tend to already have like their 40, 50-year water plans in place or have the water available for growth. They already have water set aside,” she says. For farmers on the other hand, such as her family, “we don’t know if we have enough or not in the Middle Rio Grande.”
While would-be ranchers, farmers, and residents along the Rio Grande can purchase water rights on paper— a $14 billion to $16 billion industry in New Mexico, according to the Office of the State Engineer — that water right doesn’t mean they’ll have access. Surface water rights, after all, only apply if there is surface water to be had.
And Baca points out that many agricultural users throughout the Rio Grande Basin have taken steps to cut down on water usage over the years. She says the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is currently researching ways to conserve via their Conservation Program.
“We don’t have to stop farming,” she says. Instead, we need to make sure we are growing the right crops given the resources and applying the right amount of water at the right times, she says.
Those sorts of ideas are nothing new. And in fact, farming in New Mexico has become more efficient over the last two decades. In 1990, New Mexico farmers used an average of 1.1 million gallons per acre of irrigated cropland per year. In 2015, they used an average of 1 million gallons per acre of irrigated cropland, Office of the State Engineer reports show. It’s a slight, but perhaps meaningful, change.
In Albuquerque, a different picture
New Mexico’s cities have become more efficient. Albuquerque residents have decreased their water usage by over 150 gallons per person per day, since 1989, according to data from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.
Municipalities “have done a terrific job over the past few decades, both acquiring water, diversifying their supplies, and limiting consumption.” says Gutzler. “That’s been a big triumph in our cities.”
Of course, there are still big water users throughout Albuquerque. KRQE News 13 recently reported that some of the city’s golf courses and industrial users go through tens of millions of gallons a year.
Bernalillo County has had a conservation program in place for over a decade. Through their efforts, the area has received 1,700 high-efficiency toilet retrofits, over 1,800 rain barrel systems, and over 3,900 checks for leaking and wasted water, according to their latest conservation plan update. On top of that, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA), the main water utility for Albuquerque, has their own conservation program.
Balancing water sources, balancing lifestyles
Water in Albuquerque comes from two main sources: the Rio Grande and the aquifer beneath the surface, known as the Santa Fe Group aquifer. Before 2008, most of Albuquerque’s water came from underground. The city was pumping groundwater faster than it was re-entering the aquifer, according to a study published in 2019.
Recognizing that the aquifer was shrinking, the Water Authority began sending Rio Grande surface water to users in winter of 2008. That puts about two thirds of the city’s supply on surface water, the research shows. As a result, groundwater pumping was more than cut in half from 2008 to 2016, according to the Water Authority.
But when the Rio Grande runs dry, options for surface water become limited. So, in years of drought, which are becoming more common, the city reverts to pumping groundwater from the aquifer.
“In times of drought, we typically don’t use surface water for the entire year,” Carlos Bustos, the water conservation program manager for the ABCWUA, told KRQE News 13. “In a good year we’ll use 70% surface water and 30% ground water. In years of drought, it’s the other way around.”
Joaquin Baca, a director on the board of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, says that because there’s not enough water for everyone, New Mexicans are going to have to keep changing how they live, grow food, and work. While progress has been made in the effort of conservation, Baca says we might need to make larger, more drastic changes in the future.
Across the western U.S., “cities developed in a time period where there was plenty of water,” he says. But that’s no longer the case: “I know a lot of people don’t like to hear the word ‘climate change’,” he says. “but it has changed. And so we then need to change what we do. It’s not enough just to get more efficient. We really have to start fundamentally changing what we do.”
He’s talking about completely re-working the way we approach urban development. He points to the West Side near Albuquerque as an example of development that he sees as not particularly water-conscious.
“I’m not against West Side development, but they should be, you know, built with mass transit, with multifamily housing, with water recycling, where water actually gets fully recycled,” he says. “All these things can be reimagined and rebuilt. And it’s not like we’re starting from scratch. We already know how to do a lot of things. We just have to recognize that it’s time to do something.”