On April 25, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar issued a report to Congress with some very disturbing news: Due to the effects of climate change, eight major river basins in the United States, including New Mexico’s Rio Grande, could suffer up to a 14 percent reduction in flows over the next four decades.
The Rio Grande is the lifeblood for the majority of New Mexico’s human and wildlife species. It provides water for irrigation, for our homes and for our recreation. This significant reduction in flows would be catastrophic for New Mexico’s already dwindling water supplies, and for the plants, animals, individuals, communities and industries that depend on those water supplies for their livelihood.
Moreover, Salazar’s report coincides with the release of dire forecasts for extreme drought in New Mexico in 2011. In April, when the Rio Grande should benefit from spring snowmelt, an emergency reservoir release was necessary to keep the river flowing south of Albuquerque. Taken together, the data is clear: New Mexico must address climate change or be left in the dust.
The science leaves little doubt
The science leaves little doubt that the most significant cause of climate change is human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution. In 2010, the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) recognized the reality that, if GHG emissions are not mitigated, the adverse effects of climate change will be disastrous for New Mexico’s citizens, environment and economy.
As the state board charged with protecting New Mexico’s environment, the EIB took decisive action. After weighing all the evidence and taking testimony from the public, scientists and economists, the EIB used its authority to regulate GHG pollution. In doing so, the EIB took a small but very significant step in addressing climate change.
Now, industry groups that do not want to comply with the GHG rules are suing the EIB in state court. Worse, the current EIB is unlikely to defend the rules. In one of her first acts, our new governor, Susana Martinez, who is openly hostile to the new rules, fired and replaced all the members of the EIB.
While the Martinez administration has placed an emphasis on the “negative” economic impacts the regulations might have on business, the economic consequences from failing to take action on climate change are even worse. The New Mexico State Engineer’s 2006 report on climate change impacts in New Mexico stated that “reacting to changed conditions can be ultimately more costly than making forward-looking responses that anticipate likely future conditions and events.”
A 2008 study by NMSU and UNM predicts that unmitigated climate change could result in annual economic losses of $300 million to agriculture in the Rio Grande Basin under “moderate” river flow reductions. The report doesn’t include costs from increased litigation and adjudication, severe weather, lost environmental services from agriculture, and the impact on social and cultural practices, such as acequia systems.
A 2010 Sandia National Laboratory technical analysis of the economic costs of inaction on climate change projected a cost of $1 trillion to the U.S. economy between 2101-2050 and costs to the state of New Mexico of $26 billion.
Without water, we lose farming, ranching, fisheries, and other vital industries. Moreover, we lose our natural heritage, our cultures, and our identities.
We have no choice but to adapt
To protect these interests, Amigos Bravos, along with the League of Women Voters of New Mexico and the Center of Southwest Culture, have asked the court to allow us to intervene to defend these vital rules. The groups are represented by the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice.
A defining mission for Amigos Bravos is to ensure that natural river flows are maintained and, where those flows have been disrupted by human intervention, to reclaim the river ecosystem by approximating natural flows. To ensure the protection of our watersheds and water supply, we are committed to reducing the impacts of climate change by supporting New Mexico’s leadership in curbing GHG emissions.
The horse is out of the barn. Climate change is already happening, and we have no choice but to adapt. We cannot sit idly by and accept the consequences of unmitigated climate change. We must do our part to stop GHG gas pollution and hold others who would not accountable.
Brian Shields is executive director of Taos-based Amigos Bravos, a nationally recognized New Mexico river conservation organization.