Amid withering drought, New Mexico leaders struggle to plan for life with less water

Though the Rio Grande runs through the heart of New Mexico’s biggest city, it’s often invisible behind a screen of cottonwoods, a pocket of wild hidden within an urban area.

But invisibility means the river’s more easily forgotten, which is a worrying prospect. New Mexico’s future almost certainly will be hotter and drier, with profound implications for water and people who use it. The next five decades will witness tough choices as a historic drought continues and the river is unable to give everyone what they want or need.

New Mexico doesn’t have a good track record on water planning. And now, as it nears the conclusion of drafting a 50-year water plan, some say the state continues to fall short: dedicating few staff and too little funds and not involving the right people and communities.

“This is not one of those issues that you can say, ‘Well, if we take a step in the right direction, in 20 years, we’ll have made headway,’ ” said Gina Della Russo, an ecologist who has worked along the Rio Grande for more than three decades. “We don’t have 20 years.”

Through its 1,900-mile course, which begins in Colorado and ends in the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande is known as dynamic and variable. Historically, spring snowmelt flooded its banks and the river frequently changed course. Silvery minnows adapted to spawn in spring runoff, and cottonwood’s white drifts of seeds sprout only after that rush of water leaves muddy ground.

As communities and more than 200,000 acres of irrig