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Salty Groundwater is Threatening New Mexico’s Chiles

Drought plus salt equals bad news for a state’s signature crop

(Kerrick James/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

To say that chile peppers are a huge deal in New Mexico is a huge understatement — the spicy Capsicum is the subject of magazines, festivals and even have their own institute at New Mexico State University. But, reports NPR’s Mónica Ortiz Uribe, something’s threatening the Land of Enchantment’s signature spicy vegetable: salty groundwater that’s being made even worse by drought.

Oribe reports that New Mexico’s chile crop has been declining due to rising salt in the state’s aquifers. Since the Rio Grande River has been low on water, writes Oribe, farmers have turned to underground aquifers to irrigate their crops.

“But while groundwater can be a blessing, it’s also a curse,” she notes — New Mexico’s shallow aquifers concentrate and intensify geologic concentrations of salt, making groundwater four times as salty over the last four years. This in turn weakens the roots of chile peppers and other crops, leading to dwindling harvests.

One solution would be to get more water from the Rio Grande, but The New York Times’ Michael Wines reports that the once-mighty river is “now a trickle under siege,” suffering under the drought that has gripped much of the West. The river has something else in common with its Western neighbors: it’s highly dependent on snowmelt to supply its water. Albert Rango writes in the New Mexico Journal of Science that snowmelt supplies between 50 and 70 percent of the river’s flow.

For now, the Rio Grande and New Mexico are caught in a vicious cycle: higher temperatures lead to less snow, which leads to higher salt levels in the fields. And though Oribe notes that farmers are trying alternative methods, like drip irrigation that can protect roots from salty water, it’s not clear that Western droughts — or New Mexico’s falling chile production — will get better any time soon.

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