Interior Department Report Underscores Impacts of Climate Change on Western Water Resources
Putting the national spotlight on the importance of water sustainability, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation has released a basin-by-basin report that characterizes the impacts of climate change and details adaptation strategies to better protect major river basins in the West that are fundamental to the health, economy, security and ecology of 17 Western states.
The SECURE Water Act Report identifies climate change as a growing risk to water management, citing warmer temperatures, changes to precipitation, snowpack and the timing and quality of streamflow runoff. Other ecological resources that remain at risk during the 21st century include water supply and quality; operations and hydropower; groundwater resources and flood control; recreation; and fish and wildlife.
Specific projections include a temperature increase of 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, a precipitation decrease over the Southwestern and south-central areas, and a 7 to 27 percent decrease in April to July streamflow in river basins. In the Colorado River Basin, reductions in spring and early-summer runoff could translate into a drop in water supply for meeting irrigation demands and adversely impact hydropower operations at reservoirs. In the Río Grande Basin, reduced snowpack and decreased runoff likely will result in less natural groundwater recharge. Additional decreases in groundwater levels are projected due to increased reliance on groundwater pumping.
The report, fact sheets on projected climate change impacts and a visualization tool are available at www.usbr.gov/climate/secure.
Lawsuit Seeks Accounting for Río Grande Water Use
Last month, the U.S. Interior Department warned that supplies in the upper Río Grande are expected to decrease by one-third in New Mexico over the course of the 21st century. That means even less water than previously predicted for municipalities, farmers and endangered species. A report from the department stated, “The reliability of the river to meet future needs is severely compromised by a growing gap between demand and availability and the potential for diminishing supplies due to climate change and competing uses.”
More than 6 million people depend on the Río Grande to irrigate more than 3,100 square miles of farmland in the U.S. and México. New Mexico and Texas are in a legal battle before the U.S. Supreme Court over management of the river and groundwater pumping.
The Middle Río Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) delivers water to 65,000 acres of croplands. Last month, WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit in New Mexico district court seeking an accounting for Río Grande water use. WEG claims that, “despite clear mandates,” the MRGCD has failed to prove that it is putting all the water it is permitted—since 1925—to beneficial use. WEG demands that the state engineer have MRGCD prove its use or cancel the district’s permits. WEG contends, “The state has given the district a blank water check, which is depriving the Río Grande, the bosque and their native fish, wildlife and plants the water they need to thrive.” WEG also filed applications to appropriate for storage in Abiquiú Reservoir any water not put to beneficial use by the conservancy district. That water would be reserved to protect and restore flows, habitat and ecosystems.
Federal Funding Awarded for Acequias
The federal government is providing funding for projects to improve traditional, community irrigation ditch systems in New Mexico. In February, Senate Appropriations Committee member Sen. Tom Udall, Sen. Martin Heinrich and Rep. Ben Ray Luján announced that the U.S. Corps of Engineers has awarded more than $2.5 million for the state’s acequias. The first project to be funded is the design of the Chamisol y Ojito acequia, near Peñasco, in northern New Mexico.
The new funding marks the third consecutive year the Corps has included acequia funding in its work plan. The 2015 work plan included $3.35 million for the Llano acequia’s construction costs and other projects. In 2014, the work plan included $530,000 for the Villanueva acequia in San Miguel County.
Uranium Tainting Drinking Water Systems throughout the West
Groundwater provides much of the water used to irrigate crops in major farming regions. With ongoing drought, underground reserves are being overpumped.
Uranium is increasingly showing up in drinking-water systems of the U.S. West. In California’s Central Valley farmland, up to one in 10 public water systems have untreated drinking water with uranium levels that exceed safety standards, the U.S. Geological Survey has found. Nearly 2 million people in that region, as well as in the U.S. Midwest, live within a half-mile of groundwater containing uranium exceeding health limits, according to a study by University of Nebraska researchers.
State agencies and schools in California are attempting to deal with tainted public wells by installing on-site uranium-removal systems or by diluting the tainted water to safe levels. The price of uranium-removal equipment can range from $65,000 to millions of dollars. Uranium removed from local water systems is taken away by workers in protective clothing and processed into nuclear fuel for power plants.
The main danger of uranium in water comes from the metal’s toxic chemical effects, not radioactivity. Uranium can adhere to root vegetables if they’re not properly washed. Studies have confirmed that livestock and people can ingest high levels of uranium by eating contaminated vegetation. Scientists know that long-term exposure—over a year or more—can damage the kidneys, raise cancer risks and cause reproductive and genetic damage. The potential dangers of exposure to uranium through drinking water are still being researched.
Over 74 percent of the public water supply in New Mexico comes from groundwater resources, according to a 2010 report from the State Engineer’s Office. Levels of uranium, some occurring naturally, can be found in the state’s groundwater. Last month, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, representing residents of Church Rock, New Mexico, joined the Natural Resources Defense Council and two other organizations in petitioning the EPA to repeal its aquifer pollution exemptions nationwide. With the federal exemption, along with a state permit, a mining company has, for more than 20 years, been discharging chemicals into an aquifer, contaminating a Navajo Nation drinking-water source with uranium. New Mexico has 182 aquifer exemptions from the EPA, mostly for oil and gas operations.
Federal Funding for Eastern NM Water Pipeline
The Bureau of Reclamation is funding a pipeline that, to ease the strain on the Ogallala aquifer, will bring billions of gallons of water from the Ute Reservoir to Cannon Air Force Base, Clovis, Portales and other communities along the New Mexico-Texas border. It is projected to serve 70,000 people. The project’s cost has been projected to be $550 million, but the Bureau has said it could be as much as $750 million.
Approval Hearings for Santolina Master Plan Continue
The planned Santolina Development, on more than 14,000 acres of Albuquerque’s West Mesa, is symbolic of a larger battle that pits small farming communities against large corporate interests. Concerns have focused on an allegedly inadequate water supply, possible dewatering of wells used for small farming, potential health problems for valley residents, unneeded development due to low population growth, and a greater economic burden on taxpayers.
It was recently announced that the developers are seeking both Tax Increment Development Districts (TIDDs) and Property Improvement Districts (PIDs), contradicting statements made during previous hearings that TIDDs and PIDs would not be sought.
Two lawsuits are pending against the developers (Western Albuquerque Land Holdings and Bernalillo County)—one filed by a small South Valley farming family and the other by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center—on behalf of organizations including the Southwest Organizing Project, South Valley Regional Association of Acequias and the New Mexico Health Equity Working Group.
Despite the lawsuits, the approval process is underway at the Bernalillo County Planning Commission (CPC). The next public hearings will be on April 27, May 26 and July 21.
Gold King Mine Spill Study
More than 3 million gallons of wastewater discharged on Aug. 5, 2015, from the Gold King Mine, north of Silverton, Colo., spilled into the Ánimas River. The toxic metals flowed into the San Juan River, which runs through the northern region of the Navajo Nation. Spring snowmelt is expected to increase water flow into those rivers. That could stir up lead, arsenic and other contaminants.
A study being conducted by researchers from the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University is focusing on three Navajo communities affected by the spill: Shiprock, in New Mexico, and Aneth and Upper Fruitland, in Utah. The study will assess changes in sediment, agriculture, soil, river and well water. In partnership with the Navajo Community Health Representatives program, the researchers are recruiting 30 households in each community to determine differences in toxic exposure among the communities. Blood and urine samples will be tested for lead and arsenic. The researchers will also evaluate the association between the perception of risk from the mine spill and the actual risk.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to return to the mine this spring or early summer to resume preliminary cleanup work. Last month, EPA Regional Administrator Ron Curry wrote to New Mexico’s congressional delegation that the agency is providing $2 million for the states and tribes to apply to long-term monitoring and planning. The agency is also reviewing the state’s and the Navajo Nation’s millions of dollars in reimbursement claims.
Farmington Drinking Water
The Ánimas River supplies most of the drinking water for Farmington, New Mexico. The city has safeguards in place to make sure the river water does not have heavy metals in it when it enters the water treatment plant. This involves not pumping water during times of high turbidity and using Farmington Lake to settle metals out of the water.
As part of an investigation by the USA Network, the Farmington Daily Times examined drinking water in the New Mexico cities of Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield. Every year, those cities release water quality reports that include test results for lead and copper contamination. Recent reports have not had any samples test above action levels.
Unlike Flint, Mich., waterlines in the area are not made of lead. However, during the 1970s and ’80s, lead solder was commonly used in plumbing. Farmington has been testing the water at 90 residences built during that time period. Only one sample has come back above the action level. That may be because, over time, deposited minerals have created protective coatings on the pipes’ interiors. Because Farmington’s water is not acidic, it has not eaten away at those mineral deposits.
The Clean Water Act
In January, President Obama vetoed legislation that would have nullified a new federal rule designed to clarify the scope of the 40-year-old Clean Water Act and protect smaller streams, tributaries and wetlands. Obama defended the rule, saying that pollution from upstream sources ends up in the rivers, lakes and coastal waters near where most Americans live and that the rule would protect those resources.
Many alarmed businesses and farmers had called on Congress to intervene, alleging that expanding the scope of the waters subject to the act’s jurisdiction was a power grab that would lead to additional permitting requirements, expenses and increased legal liability for landowners. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy denied the rule would expand the act’s jurisdiction but said—given drought pressures in the West and the effects of climate change—it is time to clarify some of the act’s provisions to establish regulatory certainty in regard to drinking water supplies.
Almost 94 percent of New Mexico’s waters are intermittent or ephemeral, flowing only during rainstorms. Small tributaries that often go dry feed rivers such as the Río Grande or the Pecos. Before the rule change, industrial activity near those streams could discharge chemical runoff from a work site and did not have to comply with federal regulations.
Río Grande Flood-Control Projects
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy visited New Mexico in September 2014, when she helped mark the start of a $2 million flood-control project to keep sediment out of the Río Grande and alleviate flooding concerns for the village of Corrales. The project’s catchment basins, boulders and other features were also designed to slow down stormwater rushing through an arroyo and to make the area more like a park, where residents can hike or bike. Reclaimed water from the nearby city of Río Rancho now irrigates native vegetation throughout the area. The project’s funding came from a federal loan and a grant and is the first time clean-water funds had been used for such a project in New Mexico.
This year, the Army Corps of Engineers will provide $7 million to continue building the initial five miles of structural levee in the Río Grande Floodway’s Socorro segment. The floodway will eventually replace 43 miles of existing levee along the Río Grande’s western bank in order to prevent flooding and protect a Bureau of Reclamation channel. In addition, Corps funding will be used for watershed assessment in the Río Grande Basin, including $200,000 for a Río Grande environmental management program to create a basin-wide database.
Southern New Mexico Irrigation Allotments
In March, southern New Mexico farmers learned that, this year, they will be receiving less than a third of their normal allotment of water. They were told by the Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) that they are scheduled to get about 10 inches per acre of farmland, with a possible increase to 12 to 14 inches before the season ends. That’s significantly higher than the 3.5 inches in 2013 but much less than the 3 feet of water that’s considered a full allotment. The wet cycle was particularly generous in the 1980s and ’90s.
A hydrologist credits the wetter winter—the fifth wettest in New Mexico history—for the increase this year but says the watershed hasn’t reached its full potential, in part due to a warm and dry February and March. Río Grande reservoirs are all well below half-full.
Water began to be released to southern New Mexico, and—to comply with the Río Grande Compact—to El Paso, Texas, from the Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs in late March, two months earlier than last year. Water for EBID users will be released in mid-April for the Hatch area and mid- to late-May for the Mesilla Valley, where many vegetables are grown.
Elephant Butte, which is near Truth or Consequences, had 427,500 acre-feet of water, up from 345,000 acre-feet last year. Caballo, 15 miles south of Elephant Butte, had 31,253 acre-feet, down from 35,798 a year ago. An acre-foot of water is the amount needed to cover an acre at the depth of a foot.
Water Groups Ask State Supreme Court to Invalidate Amended Pit Rule
On March 24, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center filed a petition with the state Supreme Court asking the court to review a decision handed down by the state Court of Appeals upholding the amended Pit Rule. The rule governs the storage and disposal of liquid and solid wastes at oil and gas drilling pits. It is intended to protect soil and groundwater from toxic contaminants.
In 2013, the Oil Conservation Commission, appointed by Gov. Susana Martínez, eliminated most of the substantive provisions of the rule, allegedly at the behest of the oil and gas industry. In their petition, public interest groups represented by the NMELC say that, as amended, the rule does little to protect the state’s water, public health or wildlife and that commission violated the Separation of Powers Doctrine when it amended the rule while it was under appeal in state District Court.
Copper Rule Update
The Copper Rule regulates the discharge of pollutants into groundwater. Freeport McMoRan, the world’s largest publicly owned copper-mining company, allegedly worked closely with the New Mexico Environment Department to draft the Copper Rule, which was adopted in 2013. In 2015, the Court of Appeals upheld the state’s adoption of the rule.
The state attorney general and a former state Groundwater Bureau chief filed briefs with the New Mexico Supreme Court requesting that the rule be thrown out. On March 7, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Amigos Bravos, the Gila Resources Information Project and Turner Ranch Properties, filed a Reply Brief before the court regarding the rule. It was one of the NMELC’s last steps before the court hands down a ruling that could decide how groundwater is protected—or sacrificed—at industrial sites in New Mexico for years to come.