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Federal report: New Mexico military bases risk water scarcity

Airmen from the 28th Force Support Squadron Raider Café carry cases of water at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Oct. 24, 2017. (US Air Force/Released)

Military bases in New Mexico are among a host of defense installations across the country that have not always kept proper tabs on water reserves, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, an oversight agency for Congress.

The federal report flagged the Department of Defense for not always “using reliable information regarding which installations are at risk for water scarcity” after comparing six previous reports from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and various military department reports on bases where water is not plentiful.

Since 2015, Congress has directed the Department of Defense to conduct three assessments aimed at identifying installations at risk of water scarcity and provide that information to federal lawmakers.

But the military has not always tracked how much water was available to bases or accurately estimated future water availability. It also did not always take into account all sources of water and did not precisely pinpoint the location of that water, according to the GAO report.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., said the report reflects water scarcity that communities face across the state.

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“To make sure our military installations are using water wisely and preparing for the impacts of climate change, we included several provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act,” Haaland said in a statement. “They require Department of Defense to identify, mitigate and plan for climate change impacts to military installations and infrastructure, and to include resilience to extreme weather events like drought, wildfires, and extreme heat in installation master plans.”

U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., said in a statement that she, as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has questioned witnesses about water scarcity at military installations. She also said she plans to work on finding more ways to conserve water at bases.

“It is encouraging to see bases like White Sands Missile Range cutting back water usage, but more work remains. I’m am continuing to look into ways to address this issue, like bases working with local communities to create ‘common aquifer management plans’ that address water-related challenges they jointly face,” the congresswoman said.

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said the senator and his staff are reviewing the report.

The Air Force is working to create a more standardized assessment to identify which bases could be at risk of not having enough water to meet their needs in the future, Air Force spokesman Robert Leese said in a statement.

“At this time, the Air Force does not anticipate any impacts to future mission and non-mission activities at Holloman, Kirtland, or Cannon Air Force Bases,” Leese said. “Although the infrastructure is sufficient, the water supply is declining, and additional sources of water are being pursued.”

Executive orders during the past decade have required federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, to cut back on water consumption, leading the base to install water-saving fixtures and use treated wastewater to irrigate parks and for landscaping.

The GAO analysis comes after the Department of Defense issued a report in January pointing out military installations at risk of not having enough water to meet their mission needs.

In New Mexico, the bases listed in the GAO report include White Sands Missile Range and Kirtland, Holloman and Cannon Air Force bases.

Kirtland, in particular, was one of only three bases across the country listed in three government assessments citing the facility as an area at risk of water scarcity. White Sands Missile Range was the sole Army installation that appeared in all three water scarcity reports from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The separate January report from the Department of Defense acknowledged “the effects of a changing climate are a national security issue” that could harm the nation’s efforts to defend itself.

It said White Sands Missile Range and Army installations in California are “vulnerable to current and future desertification,” which could limit future military training and testing.

Nationwide, the Department of Defense consumed roughly 84 billion gallons of water in 2018.

The Army and Air Force depend on water to support training, weapons testing, fire suppression and sanitation, the GAO report said. A dearth could thwart testing and training — especially in an era of rising temperatures and increasing drought because of climate change.

Matt Rice, Colorado River Basin director for the environmental advocacy group American Rivers, said working with the military to cut back on water use is an “untapped partnership” for conservationists.

“The Department of Defense is a massive landowner in the United States, especially in the West, and a lot of those bases have significant portfolio of water rights,” Rice said.

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© 2019 The Santa Fe New Mexican

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