Dr. Debra Peters presenting “Chihuahuan Desert Landscape in an Uncertain Future” to kick off the Fall 2019 NMSU Climate Change Seminar Series. Photo by Leah Romero. The New Mexico State University Climate Change Seminar Series (NMSUCCESS) and Friends of Organ Mountains — Desert Peaks kicked off the semester last week with “Chihuahuan Desert Landscape in an Uncertain Future”, a presentation by Debra Peters, Ph.D., lead research scientist with the Jornada Experimental Range and adjunct faculty member at NMSU.
Peters explained that Doña Ana County in the distant past was 100 percent grasslands, but desertification has changed the area substantially, as it has in other areas, over the last couple hundred years. By 1915 the county was about 37 percent grassland and 63 percent shrubbery. By 1998, the area was only 8 percent grassland.
It was a mixed session for people who care about climate change and its effects. The state secured some large-scale wins, but failed to advance measures that would diversify the electrical grid and support individual households in reducing their own carbon footprint. And while measures to hold oil and gas companies accountable for violations of the Oil and Gas Act passed, there was little appetite among lawmakers for drawing more royalty money from an industry responsible for a billion dollar surplus this year. The flagship win for Democrats was the Energy Transition Act, SB 489, which commits the state to 100 percent carbon-free power by 2050. That bill schedules a payment plan for closing the San Juan Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant that supplies Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM).
Solar panels at PNM’s Santa Fe Solar Center. It went online in 2015 and produces 9.5 megawatts, enough energy to power 3,850 average homes. New Mexico’s lawmakers have approved the Energy Transition Act, SB 489, committing the state to transitioning to 80 percent renewable power by 2040. The act also helps Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) with the costs of closing the San Juan Generating Station. It directs $30 million toward the clean-up of the coal-fired power plant and the mine that supplies it and $40 million toward economic diversification efforts in that corner of the state and support for affected power plant employees and miners.
New Mexico was in the first wave of states to require gradually increasing amounts of renewable energy such as wind, solar and geothermal to power its electrical grid. Signed into law in 2004, the state’s Renewable Energy Act required private utilities to ensure that 20 percent of the electricity they provide to consumers comes from those sources by 2020. Since then, what was once a novel idea has gone mainstream. Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and three territories have similar laws. More than half have higher goals than 20 percent.
A “rough cut” estimate of water needs in southwestern New Mexico presented to the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, or NMCAP Entity, back in June doesn’t tally up with other water studies for the region. And getting answers from the Interstate Stream Commission about the different estimates has proven impossible.
Tucked away in the southwestern corner of New Mexico, the headwaters of the Gila River pour out of mountains remote and wild. At least five other times in the past century, officials thought about taming or tapping its upper waters—then bumped up against the Gila’s unpredictability or inaccessibility. But the problems of the past haven’t dissuaded New Mexico officials from planning a new diversion of the Gila river. Nor are diversion project proponents deterred by predictions for a warmer, drier future. Some say that makes a diversion all the more necessary.
Silver City officials don’t want anything to do with a planned diversion on the Gila River—or the group of local governmental agencies that have agreed to plan, operate, and maintain the diversion. Instead, the city is focusing on conservation and efficiency.
Climate change won’t just affect rivers and forests. It’ll have widespread impacts on communities and cultures. As parents, teachers, and community members, there’s a lot we can do to make sure all New Mexico’s young people are learning about climate change, the challenges the state is facing, and paths toward possible solutions.
Watershed ecologist Krista Bonafantine wants to reduce political discussions around climate change and just get to the science of the matter. She think it’s possible to do that with students, teachers – and the public – by focusing on changes in the places people live and care about, learning from the past, and using science to make better management decisions.