In the arid Southwest, water is the lifeblood of the land, its ecosystems and people.
It’s under threat from pollution or overuse, exacerbated by climate change.
Less water is melting into streams or trickling into the underground aquifers, which provide the water for ourselves, our crops, and desert life. The water that remains is vulnerable to further degradation, whether from salt, or other chemical contaminants.
Source NM published more than 60 stories just on New Mexico’s waters in 2023. Here’s a look back on just some of those stories over the past year.
New Mexico’s largest river, shrinking.
The Rio Grande is struggling to meet higher demands from the people, plants and ecosystems depending on it.
Photojournalist Diana Cervantes and I worked to document the river across three states through one of its lowest periods throughout 2022.
The 14-part series published this year, opening with an examination of the river’s state: “The Rio Grande existed long before humans. It may not outlive us.”
We started our travels in the San Luis Valley, Colorado, documenting how climate is impacting the river’s headwaters, now on the knife’s edge. It examined impacts on forests, changing life for one farmer, and the unlikely allies searching for solutions.
When the water dries fish gasp for hours in the streambed until they die.(Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)In New Mexico, the consequences of less water are laid bare.
A rare marsh, hidden in Albuquerque dries. Federal officials talk frankly about how their efforts to save an endangered fish feel like ‘slapping a Band-Aid on a severed limb.’
The series examines the colonial legacy of reshaping the Rio Grande at Cochiti Dam. It follows how fire and drought are reshaping the traditional ways of life along tributaries.
The series concludes in Texas, following water to where it evaporates into sand beds. Increasingly salty water poses threats to crops and soils at the end of the snowmelt.
Estela Padilla describes the transformation of the river in Socorro, Texas over her lifetime.
And we met one man, with a little help, replanting the bosque in one pocket along the border wall.
The entire series is available to read here.
Source NM continued coverage into the strange weather. A wet winter and high spring melt buoyed rivers, and then subsequently dried out as the monsoons failed to appear in New Mexico.
Wrangling over water in the courts
The fight over Rio Grande water between Texas and New Mexico in the nation’s highest court faces uncertainty going into 2024. Even as a federal judge gave the nod to settle the decade of litigation, the federal government filed an objection to the deal, which will stretch the case into 2024, at least.
In Waters of the United States news: a July ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court changed water law overnight, and makes New Mexico’s wetlands, ephemeral streams and arroyos uniquely vulnerable. Efforts to try and build a new water regulatory program would cost New Mexico at least millions of dollars, state environmental officials project.
A lower stakes Texas-New Mexico court fight is playing out over a sewage spill. A New Mexico Environment Department’s decision to fine an El Paso water utility for dumping more than 1.1 billion gallons of sewage into the Rio Grande will stay in Texas courts.
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Source NM covered watersheds wide and far, in all four corners of the state.
Reporter Megan Gleason examined the agreement to change how Gallup dumps treated wastewater into the Rio Puerco between the state environmental agency and the city. New Mexico also will receive the final settlement dollars for the toxic spill from the Gold King mine.
Gleason followed troubles in the Mimbres River Basin, as ranchers and farmers in the Gila faced flooded acequias, and delayed payments by the state after the 2022 Black wildfire.
In other fire-affected watersheds, Gleason followed the struggles to navigate recovery in Las Vegas as their entire water system is under threat.
Rancher Kaye Diamond looks over a now silt-filled man-made pond whose dirt walls were drastically lowered by rain and flooding on their ranch in the Gila National Forest. Pictured on July 28, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Reporter Megan Myscofski traveled across the state to see how federal projects will inject money into long-stalled water projects in Portales and Truchas.
Reporter Gabrielle Porter illuminated the years-long effort on To’hajiilee to connect residents there with the Albuquerque-Bernalillo water system.
Groundwater cleanups and contamination
Most New Mexicans rely on groundwaters to provide what’s flowing through our taps. There’s new scrutiny on how ‘forever chemicals’ are a growing threat. New Mexico received $12 million to remove PFAS from a desalination research plant, even as a legal battle between the state and the U.S. Air Force over contamination drags on.
Source NM took a deeper dive into a chromium plume under Los Alamos, the longtime effort to clean up a jet-fuel oil spill under Kirtland Air Force base in Albuquerque, and one more spill in White Sands threatening Las Cruces’ future water supplies.
Thanks for reading, we’ll have plenty of water news in the upcoming year, as we follow threads on acequia mapping, watersheds, river health and more.