Climate Change Impacts on New Mexico’s Mountain Sources of Water

New Mexico faces a daunting challenge—the State’s demand for fresh water exceeds the supply from all sources. The problem will be exacerbated in the 21st Century by a combination of factors, including global climate change, increasing population, constraints associated with traditional water rights and interstate water compacts, and the general lack of scientific knowledge applicable and available to local and regional planners and policymakers. This convergence of natural and human pressures on the state’s water supply creates a serious and urgent challenge in NM and requires a parallel, multi-faceted solution that combines scientific as well as socio-economic approaches.

The largest source of surface water in NM is the Rio Grande, which derives between half and three-quarters of its dependable surface water supply from high elevation snowpack in its northern, mountainous headwaters region. Regional warming trends can have particularly profound hydrologic effects on snow-dominated systems at relatively low latitudes near the current southernmost extent of snow, such as exist in NM. Long-term climate changes combined with sporadic extended droughts, which have more severe effects in a warmer climate, present an extreme challenge to water management in NM. Thus, it is critically important for NM to understand the effects of global climate changes on its mountain sources of water.

Map created by Caiti Steele, NMSU