“New Mexico is in the middle of a climate crisis,” Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham told an Albuquerque town hall via video. “Make no mistake about it, climate change is real and we need to do something about it.”
The first term Albuquerque Democrat, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, ran off a short list of climate change impacts New Mexicans are growing increasingly familiar with-lack of irrigation water, parched ranches and infernos like the 2012 Little Bear Fire near the southern New Mexico town of Ruidoso, a blaze Lujan Grisham said was the state’s most destructive ever with more than 250 buildings destroyed and $22 million in damages assessed.
Rep. Lujan Grisham’s message helped frame a New Mexico climate town hall this week organized by the Sierra Club. An evening at the Duke City’s South Broadway Cultural Center featured poetry, video testimonials on climate change by young and old New Mexicans, presentations by experts, and a panel of researchers and activists from academia, government and civil society.
Dr. A. Park Williams, forest researcher with Los Alamos National Laboratory, gave a graphic look at the region’s forest fires of recent years, flashing a map depicting the progressive burning and disappearance of forests in the Jemez Mountains outside Los Alamos. Williams’ photo of the aftermath of the 2011 Las Conchas Fire portrayed a scorched earth with the remnants of a few trees left standing. Williams added that he moved to Santa Fe only three weeks before the Las Conchas blaze. “So that was quite an introduction,” he said.
Williams displayed another map that revealed severe burns in 6.5 percent of forest ecosystems in New Mexico and Arizona since 1984. Stressing that the region is in the midst of its worst drought in 400 years, the researcher added that climate models project persistent “mega-drought” conditions by the 2050s.
Naturally-occurring fires, forest management and climate change all contribute to current forest conditions, Williams said. Fortunately, he added, higher and cooler forest zones might be less vulnerable to climate changes and could survive as zones for possible preservation.
Dagmar Llewellyn, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist, informed the town hall that a new Rio Grande risk assessment report is due out this summer. Set in motion by the 2009 Secure Water Act sponsored by former New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the report will focus on the Upper Rio Grande above Elephant Butte Reservoir, Llewellyn said. The stretch of river in question supplies the farms, ranches and cities of the binational Paso del Norte region that depends on the Rio Grande.
For now, the news is not good. “We anticipate a loss of winter snowpack and a decrease in the water supply,” the hydrologist said.
A diminishing surface water supply combined with growing demand will “likely lead to a reliance on non-renewable groundwater,” which in turn, will cause a leakage of river systems, Llewellyn said.
A member of the West-Wide Climate Risk Assessment Implementation Team as well as a National Science Foundation/EPSCOR working group on climate change and agriculture, Llewellyn touched on the “feedback and cascading effects” of changing climatic conditions, giving as an example the interrelationship between moisture stress on trees and beetle infestations. “Everything is linked to everything else,” she said of changing ecosystems.
After the presentations by Llewellyn and others, audience members and panelists explored possible solutions-both personal and collective-to the climate crisis. Some of the proposals reached back to cultural and architectural traditions as guideposts for future community sustainability. Pueblo, Spanish and Mexican architecture have a lot to offer contemporary building styles, said Moises Gonzales, University of New Mexico (UNM) professor of community and regional planning. Expanding on his point, Gonzales showed the town hall a slide of a court-and-garden home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
The director of the Resource Center for Raza Planning, Gonzales highlighted issues of spatial density, building style, energy consumption and water usage in an era of climate change. Gonzales questioned the pattern of water hungry, single-family home construction in Albuquerque, a city that now gets half of its water supply from outside its own Rio Grande watershed via Colorado River Basin water from the San Juan diversion project.
Gonzales said plenty of attention is placed on transportation as a source of greenhouse gases, but 46.9 percent of carbon dioxide emissions actually come from buildings, many of which utilize energy in an inefficient manner. According to Gonzales, the “sweet spot” for optimum cooling and heating efficiencies is found in buildings constructed between four and eight feet in height.
Not surprisingly, the water question permeated much of the discussion at the town hall. Dr. Tema Milstein, UNM professor of communication, cited the centrality of acequias, the traditional irrigation systems of New Mexico, as vital for historically upholding community solidarity and agricultural culture. Joaquin Lujan, organizer for the non-profit Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), picked up on the theme by linking water, farming and history to the current climate emergency.
Originally from the community of Los Duranes in Albuquerque’s North Valley, Lujan said his family has been on the Rio Grande for centuries. “I got to see the last Mexican garrison,” he joked. “I was born in an acequia, and I had my first date in an acequia,” Lujan continued amid chuckles.
But like other New Mexicans, the SWOP organizer has witnessed big changes in a new climate. “I see birds flying around here I only used to see in Tucson,” he said, adding that green chile now matures red earlier in the season than before.
Lujan reminded the audience that before a population explosion made Albuquerque a big city, the local county consisted largely of rural, self-contained communities like Los Duranes or Los Griegos. The longtime community activist said community sharing and endurance historically served to maintain a way of life in an already-arid environment. “We’ve always lived on the edge of the desert, so we’ve already had problems with water,” Lujan reflected.
As a means of encouraging community sustainability, SWOP is involved in food-growing projects like its “Feed the Hood” program in a low-income district of Albuquerque, Lujan said. “I can’t think of a better organizing tool than growing food,” he concluded. “So we need to grow more food.”
In an interview with FNS prior to the town hall, the Sierra Club’s Shrayas Jatkar judged the meeting as happening at an “extremely pivotal juncture in our history.” Although great challenges loom ahead, positive developments include pending reductions in coal-fired energy generation at Four Corners-area power plants and the recent presidential designation of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos, Jatkar said
According to the Sierra Club activist, designations like Rio Grande del Norte National Monument help prevent important land bases from serving as significant sources of carbon emissions. The Sierra Club, he said, will be working on getting a similar status for the Organ Mountains outside Las Cruces.
“We’ll be really focused on protecting the special places that make this the Land of Enchantment,” Jatkar added.
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