By Justin Bannister
Adaptability may be the Key
Economist studies how people deal with changing environment
If some climate change models are correct, people in New Mexico can expect to see almost a third less water in the Rio Grande over the coming century. What that means to those living in the state is still up in the air.
“There is no crystal ball. But climate patterns do appear to be changing,” said Brian Hurd, an agricultural economics professor at New Mexico State University. He is trying to figure out how climate change will affect those who rely on water in cities and on farms in New Mexico.
Hurd has studied climate change and its potential effects on water and agricultural systems since 1995. Today he focuses on adaptability – how well different groups of people can deal with a changing environment.
“We are likely destined to some level of climate change,” Hurd said, highlighting studies showing even if greenhouse gas emissions stopped immediately, inertia in the carbon cycle would likely cause climate change effects for the next 30 years or more.
“It’s like trying to stop a freight train. It takes 30 years for carbon to work its way out of the atmosphere. If we try to stop that train now, it would still push us 30 miles down the track.”
Hurd said data and climate change projections taken in New Mexico watersheds show warmer temperatures leading to earlier snowmelt and earlier runoff of the Rio Grande’s water source.
He believes the projected loss of available water in the state will most likely have the biggest impact on growers.
“Right now agriculture uses 85 percent of water used in New Mexico, and currently there is virtually no spare water in the state,” he said.
Much of New Mexico’s surface water comes from snowmelt high in the mountains. Warmer temperatures could create a shift in precipitation patterns, leading to more rain and less snow. That would mean less water stored as snow and available after snowmelt for rivers and reservoirs, especially during the peak irrigation season in late summer.
Additionally, warmer temperatures translate to earlier seasonal snowmelts. That means the water that makes it to the reservoir has more time to evaporate before it is released to agriculture downstream.
“Cities will have more adaptive capacity to buy the water they need,” Hurd said. From an economic point of view, he believes if water levels dwindle, cities and developers will have comparatively more money to buy additional water to replace what is lost. He also believes agriculture will be more willing to sell water to cities to make up for lost revenue.
“This is something that has already been happening in the state,” Hurd said. “Climate change will only hasten water transfers.”
Hurd cautions it is difficult to predict how people will react to climate change.
“What’s apparent to me is adaptation is difficult to understand,” he said. “A lot of climate change impact analysis has to look at long-term future data, but there are huge changes that can happen in technology and its adoption over 20 to 100 years.”
Hurd said it is equally difficult to predict how growers will respond to climate change in terms of developing new agriculture methods, conservation and changes in land use.
“That’s not to say agriculture cannot adapt as well. With less water, farmers can make changes to prevent losing money,” he said.
Climate changes may also depend on what personal changes people choose to make. “If you study plants, plants will always react the same way to change,” Hurd said. “If you study people, they will always respond differently.”
Hurd believes people might be more willing to provide additional resources for agriculture by recognizing the valuable but often overlooked services it provides.
“Farms scattered throughout the Rio Grande region create green, open spaces enjoyed for their scenic beauty and contribution to wildlife and cultural history. Pastoral activities and landscapes are also valuable for their ability to stimulate imagination, calm anxiety and remind people of their longenduring connection to the land. Losing agriculture means losing a part of our state’s cultural heritage. It means dealing with the environmental impact of fields returning to the desert. What’s the cost of that? It’s difficult to say.”
Hurd believes cities in New Mexico will continue to grow and put stress on agriculture. If that happens, future patterns of water use could be very different than they are today in the state.