food, water, and energy resources in new mexico: past, present, and future

A photography and cinematography experience by artists Lisa Hurst, In Search of Solid Ground Photography, and scientist Anjali Mulchandani, University of New Mexico Professor

Originally showcased at Explora Science Center and Children's Museum of Albuquerque in August 2022


How have humans survived and thrived in New Mexico for hundreds of years?

Three essential resources have made this possible: water, energy, and food. The systems that produce these three resources are deeply interrelated.

Both food and energy resources rely heavily upon our limited water resources. Agriculture requires water for irrigation -- over 80% of New Mexico’s water usage is for growing crops such as onions, potatoes, corn, beans, and alfalfa. The energy sector requires water for steam turbines, hydropower, thermoelectric cooling, and fracking.

Meanwhile, the water sector requires energy for pumping, water treatment, and wastewater treatment.

Agriculture also requires energy for multiple purposes -- for pumping water for irrigation, and for food distribution from producer to consumer. 

Over our past, present, and future, humans continually make choices about how to use and maintain these water, energy, and food resources. Some of these choices, such as planting crops that have low water needs and using drip irrigation instead of flood irrigation, have been positive. They have both helped human growth and conserved limited resources. However, some choices, like drilling for non-renewable resources such as oil and gas, have led to negative impacts on the health of our environment.

The grand challenges that New Mexico and our planet face today, such as climate change and population growth, threaten the availability and security of our resources.

How can we preserve Earth’s natural resources to continue to provide water, energy, and food for a shared future?

By understanding the linkages between these three resources, we can work to preserve and protect them all simultaneously.

food: past

New Mexico’s history is deeply rooted in agriculture. Mogollon, and later Pueblo, Native American communities grew corn, squash, and beans. Early farmers also produced livestock, like cows, that were used for dairy and beef products. When Europeans arrived in the region 400 years ago, they brought wheat and barley with them. Green chiles were brought from Mexico. These food products provided nourishment to early communities and helped make agriculture one of New Mexico’s main industries.

water: past

New Mexico’s agricultural communities adapted to thrive in an arid environment with low amounts of rain. Pueblo communities, and later Spanish settlers, relied upon water to be transported to farms via irrigation canals. Acequias (pronounced ah-se-kyahs) are a type of irrigation canal system built over 300 years ago to move, equitably distribute, and manage water. There are still over 1000 working acequias in New Mexico today!

energy: past

Power plants, such as the Four Corners and San Juan Generating Stations that were built in the 1960s and 1970s, use coal and natural gas to produce energy. These power plants gave New Mexico the ability to increase electrical capacity and become one of the largest producers of energy in the United States. However, coal and natural gas are non-renewable resources, meaning that we need to continue to drill into the Earth to gather them. Drilling and power plant operations require large amounts of water. Power plants produce large amounts of greenhouse gases, like methane and carbon dioxide, that cause climate change. Power plants also emit toxic substances, like mercury, that pollute the air, water, and land, and can impact the health of humans, animals, fish, and plants.

food: present

New Mexico’s rich history of agriculture continues into the modern era. Food production greatly contributes to New Mexico’s economy, and food transportation into the state has allowed for large metropolitan cities like Albuquerque to grow. Modern-day agriculture requires both water and energy to thrive. Over 80% of New Mexico’s water usage is for growing crops such as onions, potatoes, corn, beans, and alfalfa. New Mexico is the largest producer of green chiles in the United States, and among the top producers of pecans and onions! This food is eaten by humans and is also used to feed livestock. Energy is required for transportation of food from producer to consumer. Food products are transported by large trucks across small regions, like within New Mexico, or large distances like between Florida and New Mexico. Food transportation is one of the biggest contributors to the environmental footprint of food. The trucks used for transportation use energy from gasoline or diesel, which emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. By consuming locally grown and transported agriculture, we can support local economies and reduce the energy impact of food. 

In 2022, the price of groceries in New Mexico increased by 8.5%. The price inflation may have happened for several reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the supply chain crisis, and climate change events. Food prices are a part of food security, which means that not everyone may have access to all the food resources that they need. Making more sustainable food systems will take large-scale reform in the way that we grow our food and the choices we make about what food we put on our plates.

water: present

Modern-day New Mexico relies upon water from the Rio Grande. The river starts in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. It collects additional water from the Colorado River Basin through a series of pipes and reservoirs called the San Juan Chama Project. This water is a precious resource that must be preserved. In 2022, more than 70% of New Mexico was under extreme or severe drought because of hot dry weather and lack of rain. This caused several sections of the Rio Grande to run dry. Humans can preserve and protect the areas of the river that have water by not polluting. Water pollution can occur when we dump trash in gutters or down storm drains. These drains empty stormwater and gutter water collected from neighborhoods into the Rio Grande. By protecting water in the Rio Grande, we not only provide a resource for humans but also endangered species like the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow.

energy: present

Modern-day energy relies upon a mix of non-renewable resources, like coal, natural gas, and petroleum, and renewable resources, like wind and solar. Petroleum is a fossil fuel that is processed to create gasoline, which fuels our cars and allows us to move across the city and state.

A modern method of producing oil and gas is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This process pushes a large amount of water, chemicals, and sand at high pressure into rock formations to crack the rocks and release oil and gas. While fracking uses less water than traditional drilling processes, there are other environmental drawbacks to the process. Fracking produces large amounts of wastewater that is full of fracking chemicals. Spills and leaks of fracking fluid and improper treatment of wastewater can contaminate the groundwater.

In 2022, we experienced a sudden sharp increase in gas prices. This reminded us of the value and cost of energy, and how much we rely upon energy to perform everyday activities in our lives. In addition to economics, modern and future energy choices should consider environmental impacts of production and consumption.

water, food, energy: future

Food production uses large amounts of water and energy. The future of food can have many approaches to reduce water and energy. We can try to rely upon in-season crops, fruits, and vegetables that are good for growing in this region. We can support locally grown agriculture so that food doesn’t need to be transported long distances. You can start a backyard or community garden. Collect your food waste and use it for compost. We can reduce water usage by using water-saving irrigation methods like watering only when necessary or using drip-irrigation.

Water is an essential resource for our community and our environment. We can save water by conserving at home, like turning off taps and putting in water-conserving toilets. Think about replacing grass landscape with natural xeriscaping, and planting native trees and shrubs, and using drip irrigation instead of flood irrigation. Much of our water usage goes towards livestock, like growing alfalfa for cows. Reducing reliance on meat products can reduce our overall water usage. On a larger scale, industries and cities can clean and reuse their wastewater.

There is no doubt that humans will continue to need energy in the future. We can move away from non-renewable resources like coal, oil, and natural gas. Renewable energy like wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower produce less pollution and rely on naturally available resources. These power sources can be tied into the existing city electricity grid to support our continued dependence on energy in the modern era.

How can we preserve Earth’s natural resources to continue

to provide food, water, and energy for a shared future?

The future of our water, energy, and food is up to us!

What choices should we make as a community?

The responses to the right are from community members in Albuquerque, NM.

This experience was made possible by Shared Futures, a UNM Resilience Institute endeavor.

Shared Futures is a SciArt collaborative event where we bring together local scientists and artists. The collaboration aims to communicate a scientific perspective through an artistic medium to showcase what a shared future can look like.

Click here for more information.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Anjali Mulchandani,

an Environmental Engineering professor at the University of New Mexico.