Dispatch from an irreversibly changed New Mexico

Laura Paskus’s new book examines wildfire, drilling on the Navajo Nation and climate grief.

 

In the summer of 2002, High Country News intern Laura Paskus sat at her desk in Paonia, Colorado. Every day, from 400 miles north of the river, she watched the Rio Grande on her computer — specifically, a stretch of it south of Albuquerque, the city she had left to enter journalism. Using the U.S. Geological Survey’s real-time stream gauge, she tracked the water level. She saw the river drop below its Endangered Species Act-mandated level and called federal water managers, who told her the data must be wrong. Then the stream gauge dropped below zero: The riverbed was dry. Paskus calls the resulting HCN story, on the twin problems of drought and over-irrigation, her first piece of serious journalism.

Nearly two decades of writing and reporting later, Paskus still holds onto the image of a dry Rio Grande. “I know that lots of reporters can move on from stories,” she told HCN recently, “but I just can't let that one go. I can't stop obsessing over the fact that the Rio Grande dries in the summer.”

Now a freelance journalist and reporter for New Mexico PBS, Paskus, 46, still writes about the river. She has become one of the Southwest’s foremost chroniclers of climate change and ecological collapse. Her years of dedicated reporting have culminated in a new book, At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate, out this month from University of New Mexico Press. The book gives an on-the-ground account of climate impacts on both human and non-human communities, as well as the state’s dependence on the energy industry.

She spoke to HCN from her home office in Albuquerque, discussing water shortages, the consequences of drilling on the Navajo Nation and her own feelings of “climate grief.” This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Laura Paskus in New Mexico's Sandia Mountains.
Courtesy photo

High Country News: Why is New Mexico at “the precipice,” as you put it, of climate change?

Laura Paskus: For New Mexico, our water situation is the most concerning. Surface water supplies are heavily impacted by warming, and we've spent 80, 100 years relentlessly pumping groundwater. Cities like Albuquerque and Santa Fe have tried to diversify their water portfolios. They have a mix of Rio Grande water, imported Colorado River Basin water, and then groundwater. The Rio Grande is so low this year, Albuquerque has already had to switch to exclusive groundwater pumping, and Santa Fe had to consider ceasing its diversions from the Rio Grande (groundwater pumping depletes aquifers). Because we've never treated our groundwater like a savings bank for bad times, we're not going to have those supplies to rely on in the future.

People in New Mexico, whether they are business leaders or water managers, want to be optimistic about the water situation. I think that that's not realistic.

HCN: The book discusses energy development on the Navajo Nation, which crosses into the state’s northwestern corner. Can you describe the situation on the ground?

LP: When you drive through the eastern Navajo Nation, you see the impacts of our choices for cheap gas and oil, and how people's daily lives and their futures are affected. In the 2000s, after natural gas prices dropped, there was a push by the oil and gas industry to get the Bureau of Land Management to issue more (drilling) leases. And especially around 2013-2014 (on the Navajo Nation), there was a ton of development, lots of wells being drilled, a lot of flaring going on, a lot of these big industrial facilities starting to be built in places like across from Lybrook Elementary School (on the eastern Navajo Nation). You started seeing a ton of traffic up there, and the dirt roads that connect all these communities and Chapter Houses getting dug up by big trucks. There are definitely Navajo people who support the industry and who had leases, but I met this group of Navajo women who were pushing back against the industry — especially against the Bureau of Land Management. The concerns they had were very on-the-ground: The roads that were getting dug up would get so muddy in the springtime, they were having a hard time getting out or getting back to their homes. They were worried about the flaring (the practice of burning excess gas at oil extraction sites).

 And then, at roughly that same time, NASA released a study showing this methane cloud over the Four Corners region. So, northwestern New Mexico became this really, really interesting place to pay attention to climate change, and the on-the-ground impacts of development and the choices that we make as a society. We might not have known what we were doing at first, but we definitely do now. 

HCN: What’s the relationship between tribal consultation, when it comes to oil and gas drilling, and subsequent climate impacts?

LP: I think that there are many people in federal agencies who do their best, but tribal consultation, agency-wide and nationwide, is abysmal. And I think that in northwestern New Mexico, you have the Navajo Nation, you have Navajo chapters, you have Navajo families, you have the All Pueblo Council of Governors, you have individual Pueblo families, and they are all saying: “This area around Chaco Canyon (a UNESCO World Heritage site, near where the Interior Department wants to expand oil and gas extraction) is special to us. It’s sacred to us. It has meaning to us. Please, not only protect it, but involve us, allow us a say in what happens.” And if you look consistently at BLM decisions, they are not listening to the tribes. Tribal consultation in the United States has never honored the spirit of the law, and the laws themselves are way too flimsy.

The Rio Grande runs dry near San Antonio, New Mexico this June.

HCN: In what ways do your observations about New Mexico’s climate crisis apply to the Southwest at large? 

LP: New Mexico is unique, of course — politically, historically. But what we see here is true across the arid U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico. The Rio Grande and the Colorado River share similar problems; even when there’s good or normal snowpack, runoff has dipped because of temperature increases. Across the region, we see conifer forests dying, farmlands puckered, cities with more extreme heat temperatures. And no matter where you look — Las Cruces, New Mexico, Phoenix, Arizona, or Chihuahua City, Mexico — people already facing challenges will be hit the hardest. That’s true whether you’re a small farmer, someone in a Sunbelt city with a cinderblock-construction home and an inadequate cooling system, or someone living where air quality is already poor and respiratory disease rates already high.

HCN: In your book, you discuss “climate grief.” What irreversible changes to New Mexico ecosystems provoke this feeling for you?

LP: Definitely the Rio Grande, and then this big chunk of the Jemez Mountains, that, post the Los Conchas wildfire (a 2011 blaze, the largest in state history at the time) just could not recover. Before the fire, it was a dense conifer forest. True, it was too dense, but post-Los Conchas there are about 30,000 acres that are just these open, weedy mountainscapes, and in other places where there were conifers, you see locust, aspen and Gambel oak filling in. These are entirely different forests from what they were 10 or 20 years ago.

HCN: You write about the despair you feel for the planet and how that relates to personal forms of grief. The example you give is your father’s funeral. Can you talk about this connection?

LP: For people like me, who are not religious, the outdoors is often the place to go when we’re sad or confused. When you’re an environmental reporter and you learn not only what’s happening to the climate but what we’ve let happen, there are times in my life when I’ve been unable to feel that solace. I certainly don’t know what to do with my grief, and I think a lot of people don’t. There’s this tendency to think about what’s happening to the climate, or even your favorite places, in an abstract way. I was at a point in my career where I couldn’t see it was abstract anymore.

I’ve struggled my whole life with my relationship with my dad, and his funeral, as sad and as overwhelming as it was, was a really useful ceremony to travel through and allow me to think about parts of our lives together, and think about our physical relationship with the world in a way that gave me some tools to think about my reporting on the environment. If it’s OK to mourn one person and grieve one person, it’s definitely OK to grieve for an entire ecosystem or mountain range or planet.

Nick Bowlin is a contributing editor at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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