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New Mexico’s Permanent Transformation

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New Mexico is a very special place, in part because of its ecological fragility as somewhere livable, with a long and rich history of human civilization, at the age of a harsh desert. It doesn’t take much to throw this off balance and make the place basically unlivable. That’s exactly what is happening with climate change. Laura Paskus has a new book out about this and an interview in the always important journal of western life and nature High Country News about it.

High Country News: Why is New Mexico at “the precipice,” as you put it, of climate change?

Laura Paskus: For New Mexico, our water situation is the most concerning. Surface water supplies are heavily impacted by warming, and we’ve spent 80, 100 years relentlessly pumping groundwater. Cities like Albuquerque and Santa Fe have tried to diversify their water portfolios. They have a mix of Rio Grande water, imported Colorado River Basin water, and then groundwater. The Rio Grande is so low this year, Albuquerque has already had to switch to exclusive groundwater pumping, and Santa Fe had to consider ceasing its diversions from the Rio Grande (groundwater pumping depletes aquifers). Because we’ve never treated our groundwater like a savings bank for bad times, we’re not going to have those supplies to rely on in the future.

People in New Mexico, whether they are business leaders or water managers, want to be optimistic about the water situation. I think that that’s not realistic.

HCN: The book discusses energy development on the Navajo Nation, which crosses into the state’s northwestern corner. Can you describe the situation on the ground?

LP: When you drive through the eastern Navajo Nation, you see the impacts of our choices for cheap gas and oil, and how people’s daily lives and their futures are affected. In the 2000s, after natural gas prices dropped, there was a push by the oil and gas industry to get the Bureau of Land Management to issue more (drilling) leases. And especially around 2013-2014 (on the Navajo Nation), there was a ton of development, lots of wells being drilled, a lot of flaring going on, a lot of these big industrial facilities starting to be built in places like across from Lybrook Elementary School (on the eastern Navajo Nation). You started seeing a ton of traffic up there, and the dirt roads that connect all these communities and Chapter Houses getting dug up by big trucks. There are definitely Navajo people who support the industry and who had leases, but I met this group of Navajo women who were pushing back against the industry — especially against the Bureau of Land Management. The concerns they had were very on-the-ground: The roads that were getting dug up would get so muddy in the springtime, they were having a hard time getting out or getting back to their homes. They were worried about the flaring (the practice of burning excess gas at oil extraction sites).

 And then, at roughly that same time, NASA released a study showing this methane cloud over the Four Corners region. So, northwestern New Mexico became this really, really interesting place to pay attention to climate change, and the on-the-ground impacts of development and the choices that we make as a society. We might not have known what we were doing at first, but we definitely do now. 

It ain’t good. This is a place I love very much, basically my second home after Oregon, even if I have now lived in Rhode Island for longer. The American West is transforming overnight and it is very hard to deal with.

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