Drought defense: 3 steps to effective water management in extreme climates

July 18, 2018 Estevan Lopez

A lifelong New Mexican shares lessons learned in one of the driest places in the US


As a lifelong New Mexican, I can tell you our landscapes are wonderful, our culture is rich, and our food is spicy. But our beautiful state is also dry. Based on readily usable ground and surface water supply, New Mexico is the second driest state in the US after Nevada. Most of our larger population areas are situated along our rivers and a few of those rely mostly on surface water sources. But we also have many rural communities scattered across huge areas of land—many of those only have access to groundwater and few are fortunate enough to have access to both surface and groundwater. 


The Rio Grande River near San Antonio, New Mexico, during a drought.


Surface water sources are vulnerable to drought and this year, the Drought Monitor map is increasingly red each week depicting expanding drought status as we hit the heart of summer. Meanwhile, many aquifers from which communities draw their groundwater are rapidly being depleted. And like countless other places, our infrastructure needs repair, replacement, and expansion. 

_q_tweetable:“El agua no se vende, el agua se defiende”—which translates to “water is not sold, water is defended”—is a bumper sticker often seen around northern New Mexico._q_Given these realities, it’s not hard to understand why New Mexicans are protective of their water. “El agua no se vende, el agua se defiende”—which translates to “water is not sold, water is defended”—is a bumper sticker often seen around northern New Mexico. 

But with these realities there is also opportunity. The same opportunities exist for our Stantec team members serving communities on water issues across the globe. New Mexico, like many areas in the western US, needs to follow three steps to open opportunities for water management and mitigate our droughts.


1. Understand the rule of supply and demand

Water managers and the engineers who serve them must acknowledge water demand often outpaces water supply. Balancing this reality comes through water planning, maximizing supply options, carefully considering options for reducing demand through conservation and reuse, and thoughtfully articulating economic security and environmental safeguards.

Strong water planning requires bipartisan political support, funding, and broad participation among stakeholders. And all stakeholders must sit at the table with a willingness to share perspectives, collaborate, and make difficult decisions founded upon sound science. Until we can manage this, we can’t begin to manage our water correctly.


2. Think big when planning

While it’s not always possible, water planning is most effective when carried out at a basin-scale. Water planning is often constrained by political boundaries, but basin-scale resource planning can give a more complete picture of resource constraints and management opportunities—and it empowers true innovation.

Drought contingency planning on the Colorado River is an example of this. A basin-scale view is the most accurate lens to understand and mitigate drought impacts, so we can consider the resource landscape as a whole.


Santa Rosa Lake in eastern New Mexico affected by a drought between 2011 (top photo) and 2012 (bottom).


3. Engage and empower the public

The water policy that results from these planning processes must establish appropriate incentives and empower citizens with access to functional systems and water management tools.

Often, water managers need citizens to effectively conserve, maximize, share, lease, and fallow water in a tailored approach specific to location, supply, growth goals, and environmental needs. Yet, even if people want to participate, often they are handicapped from doing so because they don’t have access to fair and monitored programs to influence the desired actions.

In New Mexico, Active Water Resource Management—a water management approach that allows water users within a basin to collaborate and establish water management rules in lieu of strict priority administration—is an example of a functional, accessible water policy approach that can empower water users to navigate their needs in concert with their community.


Where is ground zero for climate change? It doesn’t matter.

I share these thoughts because of a realization I had recently while speaking at the University of New Mexico. I referred to New Mexico as ground zero for climate change and the current drought in the Southwestern US. But, on reflection, I realize although the specific situations may be different, water resource management challenges are everywhere. Alaska, Miami Beach, Bangladesh, Louisiana, the Arctic Circle, Kentucky, and China, among others, can all refer to themselves as “ground zero for climate change.” In fact, everyone in water management today needs to be thinking about extremes.

Designing with community in mind is our only path to safely mitigate precipitation extremes. My previous work in county, state, and federal governments has only reinforced this reality over and over. It’s my hope we all learn from each other to find creative solutions regardless of the challenge.

About the Author

Estevan Lopez

Estevan Lopez has more than 30 years of experience in water policy and engineering leadership roles, helping solve water challenges facing many communities across the western US. He once served as commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation where he directed water policy and management on over $100 billion of water infrastructure.

More Content by Estevan Lopez
Previous Article
Australia leaps toward tailings risk management through adoption of EOR practice
Australia leaps toward tailings risk management through adoption of EOR practice

In Australia and across the world, external tailings management programs are being established to mitigate ...

Next Article
What role should affordability play when utilities set their rates?
What role should affordability play when utilities set their rates?

As water and sewer rates outpace inflation, some utilities are facing an affordability crisis—here are 3 st...