Deeply Rooted Thought: Water, Food and Climate Change in New Mexico

"A New Mexico Farmer's Response to Global Warming"

Edible Santa Fe, Spring 2008

by Ethan Genauer

As spring starts and we shake off shivers from another cold and windy New Mexico winter, it’s easier to April Fool ourselves that global warming isn't really a problem worth preparing for. With each degree of seasonal warming now, we celebrate to see soil thawing, seeds sprouting, trees & flowers budding… birds, pollinators & people returning to feast on nature’s abundance. Last summer’s record heat: one more faded memory. Anticipating this year’s harvests fresh from a flourishing regional foodshed, who wants to fret over that inconvenient truth?

Yet now - earlier in the year (& our lives) - is the ideal time to plan ahead and take action to create sustainable food systems resilient to climate change. If we fail to seize this opportunity, then we'll surely face bigger risks to future community food security – perhaps much sooner than we expect. As one climate scientist warns, “We're all used to talking about these impacts coming in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. Now we know that it’s us.”

That’s because the latest scientific evidence is clear: Global warming is speeding up. After the stunning “Big Melt” of 2007, glaciologists now foresee be iceless-summer Arctic by 2012 – decades faster than prior worst-case forecasts. Climate patterns are passing tipping points and prompting positive feedbacks that more force warming. And humans are still pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than ever before. With no international "Plan B" in sight, we're careening into an irreversible rendezvous with innumerable unpleasant scorched-Earth consequences.1

For New Mexico agriculture, radically less water may be the most predictable & threatening impact. Across the high desert Southwest, hotter temperatures mean shorter winters, decreased snowpack, greater evaporative loss, drier soil, less surface flow & groundwater recharge. We can expect more extreme weather events, including torrential rain causing floods and eroding soil, and longer periods of severe drought. As peak river & acequia flow gradually shifts forward up to 6 weeks, from June to April, many growers will experience increasing water stress & scarcity, especially during hotter summer periods when crops thirst most for irrigation.2

In 2007, two New Mexico university professors studied the dreaded scenario of "a very plausible future of significantly less water and at the same time significantly more people." Their "hydro-economic" analysis concluded that declining water tables, combined with increasing sales and transfers of agricultural water rights to urban and industrial consumers wielding greater economic and political clout, would make 1/3 less average water available for irrigation by 2080, causing "substantial and transformational disruption" to New Mexico agriculture. This would represent the most "expedient adaptation to maintain urban growth and economic productivity” because although agriculture consumes the largest portion of New Mexico's water (led by livestock in the east and conventional growers of pecans, cotton, onions, chiles & more in the south) it contributes less than 1% to the state's total GDP.3

We can see this future playing out today. Cities like Albuquerque switching from mining over-depleted aquifers for tap water to drinking the rivers. The State Engineer expediting formation of water markets to facilitate water right transfers. Fierce opposition from local townspeople and rural farmers against corporate developers planning to channel billions of gallons of water to the Rio Grande from a remote mountain aquifer.4

But I believe that if New Mexicans demand a viable future for local food and mobilize our communities to create it, then we'll manifest a saner alternative than the wholesale loss of farming as climate change worsens. If we truly value the priceless cultural, ecological, and health benefits that sustainable agriculture provides, then we must rise to the challenges of environmental upheaval and growing competition for limited water. Here's a few ideas for the 2008 season and beyond.

Practice acequia democracy and preserve agricultural water rights. Acequias are New Mexico's historic communal irrigation systems that support the culture and livelihood of thousands of families. They are sustained by grassroots democratic organizations that depend upon the active participation of landholders and irrigators. Local acequia groups and the New Mexico Acequia Association (based in Santa Fe) are leading efforts to protect and use traditional agricultural water rights, challenge the commodification of water, and fight for state legislation and court rulings that strengthen community self-governance over water resources. Visit www.lasacequias.org and join your nearest acequia.

Build healthy, living soil and compost. Well-fertilized, biologically diverse topsoil holds both more moisture and large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Encouraging growth of mycorrhizal fungi, which feed nutrients to plant roots and secrete glomalin — where a third of the world’s soil carbon is stored — will produce better crops and mitigate climate change. Cover crops, allowing native & non-invasive “weeds,” planting more perennials, the sort of rotational grass-fed livestock advocated by the Quivira Coalition and "holistic management," and not tilling soil will also build carbon.

Catch, cycle and conserve water. Let's finally retro-fit every New Mexican home & building with systems to capture precipitation, recycle greywater, and conserve water consumption. Give plants the water they need — but not necessarily as much as they can tolerate. Hydrozoning is a landscaping practice that groups plants with similar water requirements together. Passive rainwater harvesting places earthworks to regulate surface water flow & filtration, such as mulch, swales, berms, gabions, deep-pipe irrigation, pumice wicks, and keyline dams. Active rainwater harvesting collects water in barrels, tanks, cisterns, or ponds to be distributed by pumping or gravity drainage. By slowing water's movement through the landscape, aim to minimize runoff and maximize water storage in soil, plants & containers. Use filtering, motion & sunlight to purify water without chemicals. Brad Lancaster's Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond is an essential guidebook.

Plan for drought, fire, wind. Plant and save seeds of traditional drought-resistant staples like tepary beans, corn, squash, melons, and of course, chile. Cultivate more of our abundant native edible and medicinal plants, including endangered varieties such as the wild New Mexico Native Tomatillo, a member of Slow Food USA's "Ark of Taste." Expect more catastrophic fire, especially affecting local pinyon forests, and possibly exacerbated by generally stronger winds that would threaten unprotected soil and plants, but also increase potential wind energy. Some climatologists say the intersection of intensified drought and wind is spurring a transition to permanent "Dust Bowl" conditions throughout the Southwest.5 Watch for wind to be a major weather phenomenon of 2008, and plan ahead by building natural windbreaks like hedges, vines & trees into food production systems.

Understand and work with your microclimate. New Mexico contains huge variety of local & modified microclimates that often differ widely over small distances. Permaculture design analyzes slope, elevation, sunlight exposure, wind & precipitation flows, soil qualities, and many other factors to integrate sustainable food production with specific microclimates. For example, careful placement of shrub and tree belts can displace hillside frost zones. Forest gardens, polycultures and north-facing walls or edges can use shade to mediate evaporation and heat. Mulch and stonescaping can also moderate heat and water absorption. Many local growers are starting to use season extension techniques like solar greenhouses, hoop covers and cold frames. Color influences microclimate too, as dark rocks or fabric retain heat, while white reflects it.

Common-sense ecological adaptations like these won’t solve climate change, but they may prove essential to help families and communities ensure food sustainability during chaotic times. The Southwest climate is warming faster than many other regions of the US and world, so we have bigger challenges to get prepared!

New Mexico Acequia Association - (505) 995-9644 - www.LasAcequias.org

Quivira Coalition - (505) 820-2544 - www.QuiviraCoalition.org

Holistic Management International - (505) 842-5252 - www.HolisticManagement.org

Slow Food USA Ark of Taste - www.slowfoodusa.org/ark

1 The Big Melt: Lessons from the Arctic Summer of 2007, David Spratt, www.carbonequity.info.

2 Global Warming in the Southwest: Projections, Observations and Impacts (2007), Melanie Lenart, Climate Assessment for the Southwest, University of Arizona.

3 Climate Change and Its Implications for New Mexico's Water Resources and Economic Opportunities, Julie Coonrod and Brian Hurd, July 2007.

4 Draining New Mexico: Mining Water in the Desert, Arthur Versluis, 12/7/2007, www.Counterpunch.org.

5 Drying the American Southwest, Richard Seager et al., May 2007, Science Magazine.

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