- Associated Press - Thursday, December 25, 2014

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. (AP) - The Upper Rio Grande Basin has been struggling with drought for most of the past decade, forcing cities and farmers from southern Colorado to Texas’ Hudspeth County to pump water from the ground to make up for the lack of snow and rain.

Experts say that has resulted in the groundwater levels dropping in the border region as much as 200 feet in the past 10 years.

The precipitous drop is especially disturbing because it’s taking place in an area where it recharges too slowly to make up the loss. Worse, many experts predict a future in which even less water in the river will mean even more pumping.

Even if the region gets through the present drought, the basin’s groundwater will be overexploited, said Brian Hurd, an agricultural economics professor at New Mexico State University who also is president of the Universities Council on Water Resources, a national organization.

“The real big deal is going to be the change in the intensity of pumping,” Hurd tells the El Paso Times (http://bit.ly/1ricO5E).

He expects river flows to diminish and populations to rise in the Rio Grande Basin, increasing demand for groundwater.

The pumping is already having an effect on the bank accounts of El Paso residents. In early December, the board that governs the city’s water utility increased rates 8 percent to develop alternatives to groundwater, which the utility’s CEO called “unsustainable.”

Experts say one of the problems is that the big cities of the Upper Rio Grande Basin grew fast between 1980 and 2000, which was an unusually wet period. Together with Juarez, Mexico, the counties that are home to El Paso, Las Cruces and Albuquerque grew by 60 percent to 2.6 million, according to government data.

“People got used to the idea that there was plenty of water and growth was good until things got dry again,” said Connie Woodhouse, at climate scientist at the University of Arizona.

Between 2000 and 2010, which were dominated by dry years, population in the region continued to grow by another 17 percent, to just over 3 million.

As they look into the future, scientists predict that the best alternative to groundwater - surface water flowing in the Rio Grande - will become increasingly precious, creating even more of an imperative to pump groundwater.

Snowpack in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains is significant because when it melts in the spring, it supplies about 70 percent of the upper basin’s water, according to data from the Texas A&M; AgriLife Center in El Paso.

University of New Mexico climatologist David Gutzler said that even without global warming, the climate in the Southwest seems headed back to drier norms.

“Just looking back in time, we know the Southwest was significantly drier in the past,” Gutzler said. “We know without any doubt that our groundwater reserves are significantly depleted. Climate change just adds to that.”

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Elephant Butte Reservoir, issued a report last year that said climate change seems worse in the Upper Rio Grande Basin than it does worldwide.

By the end of the century, the report predicted, flows in the river are projected to drop by a third, which would create more pressure for irrigators and cities to tax the region’s groundwater even more heavily.

Also, a warmer climate is expected to produce more violent storms, which means that the water that flows into the system will be more difficult to predict and be harder to manage, the report said.

“Yes, we need to be concerned,” Gutzler said. “But we need to be concerned in a constructive way.”

Water managers south of Elephant Butte Dam have already taken steps to conserve. The El Paso Water Utility will begin recycling in 2018, and irrigation districts on both sides of the border are upgrading infrastructure.

But Hurd said even bigger changes need to happen to address the problem.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the governmental institutions to do that,” he said.

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