Climate change is top of mind for everyone this summer as we deal with sweltering heat, wildfires, and a slow-to-start monsoon. As part of the state’s 50-year water plan, scientists have told New Mexicans to expect a 25% reduction in water supplies by 2070 – about 5% every decade – as a consequence of a warming climate.
How can we “future proof” our water resources so that we can ensure sustainable water supplies for communities, the economy, and the environment in response to the impacts of climate change? Water quality protection plays a critical role in ensuring sustainable water supplies by safeguarding the quality of surface and groundwater that we rely on for drinking water, agriculture, industrial use, recreation, and ecosystem health. If our water is polluted, then it is unavailable for use, reducing the overall supply. As water supplies become scarcer due to climate change, we must double down on our efforts to protect water quality.
Strong regulations, oversight and enforcement are needed to prevent contamination of water resources. This is especially important in southwest New Mexico where hardrock mining, the nation’s #1 toxic polluter, has contaminated thousands of acre-feet of groundwater beneath the Chino, Cobre and Tyrone mines. For 25 years, GRIP’s Responsible Mining Program has served as a watchdog over mining operations, reviewing permits and advocating for more stringent permit conditions to protect our surface and groundwater from copper mining discharges. GRIP continues to successfully advocate for more rigorous requirements in mine operation, reclamation and clean-up plans and permits that will be more protective of our groundwater supplies which we are 100% dependent on for our drinking water.
Strengthening water quality regulations will also help protect water supplies over the long term. GRIP, Amigos Bravos and the NM Environment Department serve on the Steering Committee for the Toxic Pollutant Working Group that is addressing the impacts of toxic pollutants on water quality in New Mexico. We’re discussing the addition of emerging pollutants, such as PFAS, to the list of regulated toxic pollutants in the New Mexico Water Quality Act regulations, as well as bringing the state’s acceptable cancer risk level in line with EPA’s more stringent risk level of 1 in 1,000,000. PFAS, a group of per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds otherwise known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, pose a serious health risk. Recent water quality monitoring conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) revealed elevated concentrations of PFAS in the Gila River and many other water bodies around the state. NMED and USGS are currently testing groundwater wells for PFAS to better understand the extent of PFAS levels in New Mexico.
Changes to the federal Clean Water Act over the past three administrations and a recent Supreme Court decision have left a large percentage of NM’s waterways without protection from pollutant discharges. For example, because the Mimbres Basin is a closed basin i.e., it does not drain into a river that empties into an ocean, polluters like the Chino and Tyrone mines are no longer required to obtain a federal discharge permit under the Clean Water Act. Moreover, the recent Sackett decision by the Supreme Court has potentially removed protections for the state’s intermittent and ephemeral streams that represent 93% of the state’s waterways.
New Mexico is one of only three states in the country that does not have “primacy” to implement surface water quality permitting under the Clean Water Act. GRIP is working with a coalition of groups from across the state to support NMED in development of a state surface water quality permitting program that is necessary to protect our surface water resources.
Climate change will continue to put enormous stress on available water supplies, and water quality protection is a critical tool in a multi-faceted approach to achieving water supply security in New Mexico for people and the environment.