New Mexico faces extreme water scarcity on par with the United Arab Emirates. Experts warn more 'day zeros' are looming.

Rio Grande droughtSandbars fill the Rio Grande north of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Weather forecasters said sparse rainfall in the US Southern Plains since autumn had caused drought conditions to worsen, especially in the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press

A global water crisis looms, and US states are not immune to it.

New Mexico faces the same degree of water stress as the United Arab Emirates - the 10th most water-stressed country in the world - according to a new report from the World Resources Institute. That means that industries and municipalities in the state use about 95% of New Mexico's available annual water supply, leaving little in the reserves for droughts and dry spells.

California, Arizona, Colorado, and Nebraska face similar challenges.

"Our populations and economies are growing and demanding more water, but our supply is threatened by climate change, by water waste, and by pollution," Betsy Otto, director of WRI's Global Water Program, said in a call with reporters. "Water stress, which occurs when demands rival annual supply, is a manifestation of those issues."

The researchers behind the report said they expect to see more "day zeros," the term for the moment when a city's taps run dry, as populations grow and continue to draw from dwindling water resources. In January 2018, Cape Town, South Africa got dangerously close to reality: The government announced the city was three months from day zero. Residents successfully limited their water use enough to make it to the next rainy season, however.

New Mexico also faced severe drought last year (along with much of the Southwest). The threat led farmers to plant more drought-resistant crops like beans, or to abandon their fields altogether. Some farms were allotted just 10 inches of water from the Rio Grande, compared to the normal 36. With no grass to feed their herds, ranchers sold cattle to pay for hay. The USDA declared disaster areas across the state, qualifying ranchers for federal loans to cover financial losses.

"Most of us have drinking water," Cassidy Johnston, a New Mexico rancher, told Water Deeply. "But all the drinking water in the world doesn't change anything if your cattle don't have anything to eat. We count on rain. We count on rain for everything."

The state's largest reservoir ran as low as 2.9% capacity. After rescuing 10,000 endangered silvery minnows from drying up with the river, the federal government had to lease $2 million of groundwater from Albuquerque in order to keep the Rio Grande flowing.

"Drought makes the situation worse, but usually the underlying indicators have been flashing red for a while and we just haven't been paying attention," Otto said.

'Water stress' is a comparison of supply and demand

To measure water stress, WRI looked at the amount of water that gets withdrawn each year from the total supply of renewable, available water. (Withdrawal isn't the same as water consumption, since some withdrawn water is later returned to the source.)

The group evaluated the water-stress levels of 189 countries and the regions within them, including US states.

US states water stressThe WRI Aqueduct report found that New Mexico face extremely high water stress, while four other states have high water stress.World Resources Institute

In regions that face "extremely high" water stress - like New Mexico - industry, agriculture, and municipalities are withdrawing at least 80% of available surface and groundwater each year. That puts them in a precarious position, with little leftover water to serve as a buffer in dry spells.

In total, the WRI report identified 17 countries facing this level of extreme water stress: Qatar, Israel, Lebanon, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, the United Arab Emirates, San Marino, Bahrain, India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Oman, and Botswana. Those countries are home to a quarter of the world's population.

New Mexico's risk is on par with that of the UAE, the report found. It also suggested that four US states - California, Arizona, Colorado, and Nebraska - face high water stress, which means they're withdrawing between 40% and 80% of available water annually.

2016 03 31T120000Z_1783706554_GF10000367625_RTRMADP_3_CALIFORNIA DROUGHT.JPGA dried riverbed near San Ysidro, California on March 31, 2016. The state's longest-ever drought began in December 2011 and ended in March 2019.Mike Blake/Reuters

With the exception of Nebraska, these states all draw water from the Colorado River, which for the last 19 years has experienced its worst drought in 100 years. In July, water levels in Lake Mead, the Colorado River reservoir that supplies water and energy to much of the Southwest, dropped to just 7 feet above the official shortage level. Below that mark, the federal government would significantly reduce each state's water allocationt.

The Bureau of Reclamation projects that Lake Mead will hit that shortage level by 2020.

In New Mexico, the drought let up this year, but ranchers in the southeast part of the state are still buying supplemental feed for herds given the lack of grass and selling cattle to cover the extra costs, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported.

colorado riverThe Colorado River supplies water to more than 40 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.Julie Jacobson/AP

In other countries, water stress is even more dire

The world is on track to warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius as early as 2030. That would increase the likelihood of extreme drought in the Mediterranean, reduce rainfall across Southern Africa, and causing longer and more frequent heat waves in many parts of the globe.

According to the WRI report, 27 countries face high water stress around the world: Chile, Cyprus, Yemen, Andorra, Morocco, Belgium, Mexico, Uzbekistan , Greece, Afghanistan, Spain, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Turkey, Albania, Armenia, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Namibia, Kyrgyzstan, Niger, Nepal, Portugal, Iraq, Egypt, and Italy.

chennai india water day zeroResidents gather to fill empty containers with water from a municipal tanker in Chennai, India, June 25, 2019.P. Ravikumar/Reuters

Chennai, India's sixth largest city, reached "day zero" in late June. (Taps across the city ran dry, though officials have not formally declared day zero.) Last year, the city saw less than half its normal rainfall, and the summer brought temperatures up to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Wells and reservoirs dried up, and the city's population of over 8 million was left without water. Residents still rely on trucks to bring in water each day, the Financial Times reported.

Climate models indicate that situations like this will become more common in the next 50 years, as rainfall continues to decrease, temperatures continue to rise, and world population grows. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects severe reductions in water resources for 8% of the global population from 2021 to 2040. By 2071, the problem will affect 14% of people around the world.

Climate change impacts the demand side of the water equation, too.

"Crops will draw more water up during dry periods. People will use more electricity to run their air conditioners," Otto said. (Energy production accounts for 10% of water withdrawals worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency.)

drought sunflowers heat wave germanyHeinz-Peter Bader/Reuters

Distributing water also requires energy - globally, this process uses as much energy as the entire country of Australia. Creating that energy, of course, involves burning fossil fuels, which emits the heat-trapping greenhouse gas responsible for climate change.

The IEA projects that the water sector's energy use will double by 2040, as more water sources run dry. Industries and municipalities will have to pump water from further away and deeper in the ground, or opt for extremely energy-intensive desalination. At least one water manager in New Mexico reportedly considered diverting water from the Mississippi River after last year's drought.

chennai india day zero water tankerA worker fills a tanker train with water, which will be transported and supplied to drought-hit city of Chennai, at Jolarpettai railway station in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India, July 11, 2019.P. Ravikumar/Reuters

Preventing 'day zeros'

Otto said better planning and water-management practices can help mitigate water crises - she suggested more water-efficient irrigation systems, better recycling of wastewater to water crops or use in industrial processes, and more simple infrastructure maintenance like fixing leaks.

Seven states that pull from the Colorado River are trying to implement such practices, including New Mexico. In March, they signed onto a management plan that asks each state to cut their water use and plan ahead to prevent reservoir depletion, The New York Times reported.

"The picture is alarming in many places around the globe, but it's very important to note that water stress is not destiny," Otto said. "All of those approaches can help us change the trajectory that we're on. What we can't afford to do any longer is pretend that the situation will just resolve itself, or throw up our hands and say that there's nothing we can do."

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